Quebec's purge of religion reaches the youngest levels

  • January 12, 2011
At the nursery school my children attended, parents were assigned duty days to maintain the required adult-to-child ratio. If you were assigned to group time or snack time you had to be prepared for any and all sorts of conversation.

One morning, I listened along with four pre-schoolers as a little boy told how his family had gone out to buy a Christmas tree on the weekend. It was no ordinary trip to the Boy Scout lot or the garden centre, but a drive to the country where the perfect tree was selected. Dad chopped it down, they brought it home, set it up and put a star on it.

Like most stories a three-year old might tell, this one was entertaining and humourous, probably more so because I knew the family was Jewish and he was probably relating a story he had seen on television or heard through a neighbour. Children at that age don’t so much lie as move easily between the real and the imaginary.

The connection to their interests is usually accurate enough, though. At that non-denominational school, pets and siblings probably came up the most, but references to God or church were common. Religion wasn’t taught, but neither was it stifled.

I wonder now how such group-time chatter would meet the test of Quebec’s newly announced policy banning any teaching of religion in publicly subsidized daycares. Just in time for Christmas, Family Minister Yolande James announced a directive ordering all operators of Quebec’s $7-a-day subsidized daycares, even those operated by religious orders, to cease all religious instruction to children in their charge.

While the move may not affect a great many facilities — estimates are that only about one in 20 of the province’s subsidized daycares are religious — it gives nursery inspectors the onus of determining which activities or symbols are sectarian and therefore taboo, and which ones are cultural and thus permitted.

Daycares that dispense religious instruction will have until June 1 to phase out religious teaching or they could see their government subsidy “suspended, reduced or cancelled.”

In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, James drew a parallel with Quebec’s public schools, where religious instruction was ended and the schools were re-structured along linguistic, not religious, lines. James wasn’t the only one to draw the parallel. Jean Morse Chevrier, chairperson of the Association of Catholic Parents of Quebec and regional director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, says the daycare directive is similar to the imposition on religious schools of a mandatory course in ethics and religious culture (ERC) that has resulted in court challenges.

“In effect, in the name of respect for diversity, the government is abolishing true diversity more and more in educational programs,” said Morse Chevrier. “Quebec is leaning more toward suppression and discrimination against believers of any religion.”
Parents will pay substantially to opt for religious instruction at daycares, she added.

“They will have to pay for unsubsidized care for their children as well as for any protest. Quebec parents already have a similar situation in schools, where only private institutions are able to offer denominational instruction in addition to the ERC course.”

The new directive bans “teaching a belief, a dogma or the practice of a specific religion” in a daycare. It does not ban “cultural diversity or traditional or historical activities,” the minister said. “Christmas trees, the menorah, and all of these symbols are allowed.”

What is not allowed are religious terms, songs and prayers. So now, presumably, new inspectors that the minister is hiring will add these forbidden words and symbols to the list of items to watch out for when they are deciding if a child-care facility meets state guidelines for funding.

Like most government initiatives, this policy could be made even worse by interpretation at the local level. Good, experienced teachers know how to work with parents to ensure nursery schools and daycares are geared towards children’s needs. In less experienced hands, a policy like this could have the effect of silencing a child on topics they want to discuss.

In any case, this strikes me as having less to do with quality care than purging religion from Quebec society.

The taxes that make it possible for the province to provide daycare at well below real market costs are paid by all people, religious believers included. If some of them want religion to be a part of their child’s daycare, why shouldn’t they have the same access to a public subsidy as everybody else?

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