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Ethics and religious culture course necessary and timely

March, 2010

There is a simmering and potentially divisive debate under way about a compulsory course called Ethics and Religious Culture being taught at elementary and secondary schools, public and private. The course is broaching the once-taboo subjects of diverse religious and ethical cultures that inhabit our province. Our schools once ignored these areas because the dominant Roman Catholic and Protestant religions controlled the political decision-making process and the curricula in our schools. But as Bob Dylan observed almost half a century ago: “The times they are a changin’,” and in the climate of pluralism, this is no longer possible.

The course was introduced in the fall of 2008 to replace the choice then offered: Catholic religious and moral instruction, Protestant moral and

regional education, or the more amorphous moral education, which examined Judeo-Christian values inherent in our civilization. The new course, being taught in all grades except Grade 9, emphasizes the historical importance of Catholicism and Protestantism, but also discusses aspects of Judaism, native spirituality, Buddhism and Hinduism.

It was introduced to help students understand the religious and ethical traditions that our newer neighbours have. Quebec, and all of Canada for that matter, is becoming a cultural rainbow thanks to the continuing – and welcome – influx of immigrants. The total fertility rate in Canada was only 1.66 children per woman in 2007, well below the generational replacement level of 2.1, the rate that must be maintained to replace those who die or leave, in the absence of migration.

With Quebec giving bonus points for knowledge of French, by far the largest single group of immigrants – 23 per cent for the first three months of last year – is from Muslim North Africa. There is also a growing Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh presence here. Given the kind of misunderstandings flowing from interaction – or rumours – from this relatively new religious and ethnic mix, Quebec’s education department has wisely decided to develop a program so students can familiarize themselves with these belief systems and practices.

This is not a comparative religion course. Teachers have broad leeway in methods to stimulate discussion. They must attach value judgments to any of these beliefs and practices and encourage discussion in a climate of respect. A mix of nationalists and conservative critics has challenged this aspect. Nationalists say this is really promoting the hated multiculturalism of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. They want students to be immersed in Quebec culture. Sociologist Joëlle Quérin says the aim is to smooth the way for “unreasonable” accommodations, citing the cancellation of exams during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day, as an example.

National Post columnist Barbara Kay says the course is “a creepy state foray into social engineering” because it imposes normative pluralism. Catholic critics say this is akin to moral relativism, and contrary to their deepest convictions. Catholic parents in Drummondville and Granby have gone to court and lost in their bid to argue the course is contrary to freedom of religion. At least two ultra-orthodox Jewish schools – The Tash community’s Rabbinical College in Boisbriand and the Satmar’s Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Mile End – have indicated they will not teach the full curriculum, the Canadian Jewish News reported. This is not surprising, and the government has indicated it will suspend 60 per cent of funding to any private school that does not teach the prescribed curriculum. One Jewish scholar has urged the Orthodox community forgo grants if the price is teaching material that clashes with its most profound beliefs. So be it.

We believe the course is necessary, timely and open to fine tuning. As the course outline states, it prepares students for a better comprehension of our society and its cultural and religious heritage and encourages “tolerance, respect and openness.” We say Bravo and encourage the government to stand firm in insisting the course be given as prescribed. Private schools that believe it clashes with their convictions can forgo government support.



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