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A snapshot of freedom of education in Canada

In provinces such as Alberta and Québec, the educational curriculum is being rethought, which, among other things, has sparked a debate on academic freedom. 

Fernando Emilio Mignone-April 11, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes
boy with the flag of Canada

Photo credit: Ksenia Makagonova / Unsplash

In Alberta, after a year of consultations with families and educators, the provincial government gave details on March 29 of a new curriculum for the first six grades of schooling, which respects certain family values and Canadian citizenship and history "ignored" by the previous curriculum, according to the provincial education minister, Adriana LaGrange. Parents and teachers will have a whole year to give their opinions, and it will not be implemented until September 2022.

Meanwhile in Quebec, the curriculum of a very controversial subject of Ethics and Religious Culture, which is compulsory in 10 grades and which many parents think forces the teaching of relativism, is under review. Although 10 % of the schools are private, they too must teach this subject. Protests by Jewish, Catholic and other parents have reached the highest courts. In the Loyola High School of Montreal versus Quebecthe Canadian Supreme Court upheld religious freedom against state secularism. Pyrrhic victory, as the government continues to force the teaching of religious ideas. à la mode on sexuality and gender. But, on the other hand, it resists for the time being the cancel culture - the tendency not to have students read the classics of Québec literature.

Alberta and Quebec are two (quite opposite) examples in this ancient, transcontinental, democratic-parliamentary federation. A country with 40 % of Catholics (compared to less than 25 % in the United States).

The "secularist" East and the free West 

The border between the provinces of Quebec and Ontario delimits in a certain way two Canadas, as far as freedom of education is concerned. To the west, a lot; and to the east, secularism.

The history of this country explains this difference. Quebec and Ontario originally had Catholic and Protestant public education systems. And by "constitutional symmetry", after the founding of the country by the British North America Act (of Parliament) of July 1, 1867, the provinces of Ontario and others further west also had religious state schools. 

But there were dramatic changes in the last decades of the 20th century, towards secularism on the one hand and freedom of education on the other. As we said, in the five provinces located west of the Ontario-Québec border (Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia), there are still today Catholic schools and some Protestant schools, fully or partially subsidized by each province. These 5 provinces have 27 million inhabitants, compared to the 12 million inhabitants of the more "secularist" provinces of the East, especially Quebec and Newfoundland. The latter have abandoned public religious schools (although there are private schools, religious or not). In fact, Quebec, after its "French revolution" in the 1960s, has established a sort of "civil religion" through its Ministry of Education.

Thanks to the pandemic, however, home schooling is on the rise in Québec, even though the proportion is below the percentage in the United States. home schooling than in the majority English-speaking provinces (i.e., all other provinces). Across the country, approximately 1 % of students are home-schooled; and home schooling has always been legal throughout Canada.

Brett Fawcett says

Brett Fawcett, from Edmonton, Alberta, teaches in the Canadian International School of Guangzhou in China, and is a scholar of Canadian Catholic education. He has done some research whose conclusions come as a perfect fit here. In dialogue with me, he explains that the basic constitutional principle with respect to "denominational" schools (let's not forget Protestant state schools, even though they are now dying out) is this: if a province joined the Canadian federation in 1867 or later with explicit legal protections for such education, provincial legislatures cannot repeal them without a constitutional amendment. Thanks to the cultural invasion from the south, Canada is "tyrannized" by American ideas of political philosophy. But Canada's founders established an educational system very different from that of the USA, "for very good reasons".

Fawcett has investigated Catholic state education and proves that students almost always learn more, drop out less, are more respected if they are indigenous, etc. In other words, he proves that this type of education brings many advantages to society, in addition to saving money for the treasury. He says that, in the specialized articles, the phrase "Catholic school advantage" describes this phenomenon in three words. "I suspect," says Fawcett, "that those who criticize Catholic subsidized education concede its successes without contradicting them because they don't want anyone to take too much notice. If people were to take more notice, and see how much good it does young people, all the arguments against it that seem so persuasive would suddenly seem weaker. And it is not from now; it is from always that Catholic schools have been better, and that in spite of constant opposition, skepticism and disadvantages."

These advantages are summarized by Fawcett as follows: better academic results; warmer and more welcoming communities (e.g., for indigenous people, immigrants, non-Catholics); and the decisive fact that many parents (including Muslims, non-Catholic Christians and others) choose these schools. Fawcett argues with a global view. He explains that the same thing happens in many other countries, such as the United States (Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the New York Times that African-American and Latino children like her were able to rise from humble origins to successful careers thanks to Catholic schools), Chile, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

In addition, he has made a historical analysis in which he points out the struggles since the beginning of the country to establish and maintain these schools. In this regard, he highlights the Irish Catholic immigrant Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a Montreal politician who in the 1960s was instrumental, together with a Protestant political opponent, in incorporating the above-mentioned constitutional principle into the Canadian constitution.

Fawcett adds that Canadian multiculturalism - a political philosophy distinct from the American "cultural melting pot" - relies heavily on religious state schools. Dominant cultures are much more "assimilationist" when they... dominate! This is proven in Quebec today, when governments, having abolished in 1997 the religious state schools, impose the ideologies of the day (gay, gender), ignoring the concept of the right of parents to the education of their children.

Fawcett quotes John Stuart Mill: the English philosopher had already warned that educational diversity is of untold importance.

"Canada always wanted to be a multicultural society. The reason French and English populations of British North America were willing to join together to form a nation, despite the tensions between them, was that they wanted to protect their respective civilizations from being absorbed into the shredded flesh of the United States."

"Catholic schools preserve the valuable diversity of cultures, including, for example, the fact that Muslim students can say their prayers in a Catholic school in Toronto."

"The great Canadian philosopher George P. Grant, in his book. Lament for a NationThe 1965 edition of the Canadian Journal of 1965 reminded its readers that Canada was founded by two religious civilizations that wanted to preserve themselves from the encroaching liberal society of the United States. The reason they had to form another nation was to resist the United States, because it was imperialistic. It was a seductive and attractive nation, it eradicated other cultures and imposed its own."

"Grant argued that since liberalism sees the atomized individual and his or her desires as the primary good, it is linked to technology, which in turn is linked to the satisfaction of the individual's desire. A society based on technological liberalism judges everything in relation to the utility of technology. If a culture hinders technology, that culture is unceremoniously swept away."

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