"The Triumph of Stupidity"
Experts say Quebec's new citizenship class will turn our classrooms into a partisan battleground that fosters ignorance of other cultures.
By Joe Bongiorno
It’s the last period in Joseph Lamantia’s Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) class at John. F. Kennedy High School in St-Michel. The lesson of the day: comparing the beliefs of Judaism to Christianity. Islam will be covered in the coming weeks.
Pencils squeak and sneakers tap against the floor as the class of secondary two students in matching J.F.K. Knights hoodies fill out their fact sheets. Once the activity is over, the students will share their answers with partners.
The point is to open the students’ eyes to the fact that the three faiths are borne of the same Monotheistic God, Lamantia explains. He hopes they see the similarities and how worshippers of the different faiths aren’t so different.
Lamantia has been teaching ERC at the school for the last five years and hails from a line of teachers. Years ago, in the days I was stoned from the lunch hour joint and fiddling with my trigonometry set, his father taught me algebra. With flags hanging from the ceiling and maps covering the walls, Lamantia’s classroom may look benign, but it also plays host to a battleground between competing visions of Quebec society.
In October, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge announced that ERC would be replaced by the new Quebec Citizenship and Culture program in order foster “national cohesion.”
In the eyes of some nationalists, Quebec’s very nationhood is under siege and in need of protections to secure its place in North America as a secular, majority francophone society.
But ERC teachers and thinkers who have taught, helped create, or recommended the program fear that the Coalition Avenir Quebec government’s new course will lead to prejudice toward people of faith and undermine tolerance of pluralism.
An all-white cast of actors and fellow politicians sit alongside Roberge at the announcement of the new course.
Aside from the minister, there are no pedagogical experts in attendance. A promotional video then fills the screen. CAQ top dogs endorse the new class, and the background music strikes the tone of a heroic Hollywood odyssey, one that might cast Brad Pitt as a demigod with an inexplicable British accent. And as the score comes to a triumphant crescendo, Legault addresses the people of Quebec.
“We need to teach our children more about who we are as Quebecers, about our history, our culture, our way of living together. This is the foundation of our shared citizenship, the source of a prouder Quebec.”
As soon as the minister wraps up the press conference, ERC teachers drop their chalk and sound off, accusing the government of letting politics trump education.
Marie-Noëlle Corriveau-Tendland, who was part of the drafting committee for the new course, tells The Rover that the politicization of the review, consultation, and curriculum writing processes forced her to resign.
The Association Québécoise en Éthique et Culture Religieuse (AQÉCR) calls the announcement a “political game” and the Fédération Nationale des Enseignantes et des Enseignants du Québec warns against the “instrumentalization of education for political purposes.”
Both groups say the government failed to meaningfully consult them in their crafting of the new course, while the First Nation Education Council (FNEC) tells The Rover that the council has not been consulted since January 2020.
But others are rejoicing. Nationalist pundits who have long called for the abolishment of ERC like Mathieu Bock-Côté are celebrating the “victory.”
“The course was a propaganda machine for multiculturalism and the ideology of ‘reasonable’ accommodation,” Bock-Côté writes in the Journal de Montréal. “After nearly fifteen years of fighting the powerful pro-ECR course lobby, which dominated and still dominates the Ministry of Education and the faculties of education, Quebec nationalists have succeeded in convincing the government to abolish it!”.
So, what is the menace of multiculturalism and reasonable accommodation? And what does “national cohesion” really mean?
According to Concordia political science professor, Daniel Salée, some critics of the ERC see themselves as saviours of Quebec defending against the perils of multiculturalism.
With the Quebec Culture and Citizenship class, Legault is trying to assert Quebec’s identity as an autonomous nation in which all citizens, especially immigrants and Canadians from elsewhere in the country, abide by Quebecers’ way of doing things, says Salée.
In fact, the new course should come as no surprise, he says. It’s directly in line with legislation put in place by the CAQ with Bill 21 — Quebec’s religious symbols ban — the PQ’s Charter of Values, and even the Liberal Party with Bill 64 and 94, all laws which affirm a Quebec identity or limit the visibility of religion in public service.
But when the state imposes one set of values for all citizens, it also silences the voices of cultural minorities, he says. “Not only other values, but other cultures, other ways of being, others ways of thinking.”
And the values called mainstream in liberal democracies in power are usually the violent product of colonialism, slavery, racism and discrimination. “That's what we've done with indigenous people,” says Salée. “That's why indigenous people now talk about decolonization.”
Back in St-Michel, sunlight beams through the classroom windows, and the spotless desks seem to glow.
Lamantia lowers his mask, sips his cappuccino and describes his love for the job. If you count the eight shots of espresso in his traveler’s mug, he’s on his ninth cup of the day.
The diversity of cultures reflected in the neighbourhood underscores the value of teaching ERC, he says.
“In St-Michel [the students] see so much multiculturalism just by standing at the street corner of our school, and when they start making connections and understanding the differences in people, but [also] how we're all the same, it's really amazing.”
His class affords him constant opportunities to dispel stereotypes. The curriculum is thin, but he supplements it with his own material. With the older kids, he teaches a unit on islamophobia and another on homophobia.
On the ethics end of the course, he has his students discuss Black Lives Matter and Bill 21 — which the CAQ passed by invoking a seldom-used clause in the Constitution in order to bypass the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Now, Lamantia worries that the Quebec Culture and Citizenship course will upend that message of tolerance. “It's backwards,” he says. “You have to learn about those differences before you become tolerant and reflect that in the values of Quebec.”
A few kilometres to the east in Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie is Père-Marquette High School. ERC teacher Ian Mazzoleni-Godin is waiting for his students to trickle into his classroom before the bell rings.
Mazzoleni-Godin also wonders if removing the teaching of religion will leave Quebec’s students unaware of the world that surrounds them. “It’s up to us as a society to decide, if we stop giving access to this knowledge, are we creating ignorance?”
Erasing faiths from the curriculum may not only lead to prejudice against those who chose to worship but also hinder a deeper understanding of the role religion may play when wielded for political power by forces like the religious right or ISIS, he says.
Along the river in Montréal-Nord, Line Dubé, interim president of the AQÉCR, is ruing the loss. In her high school ERC classroom, her students learn to build bridges between themselves and people from a plurality of faiths, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Dubé says accusations of indoctrination are totally unfounded, and the new course will sew more division than togetherness. She also dismisses the assertion that ERC forces students into ideological camps. The world she knows is pluralistic, and the identities of her Montréal-Nord students, her family, and her own self can’t be reduced in the singular.
“Instead of asking who I am, we should ask who are I,” she says.
Downtown, in the beating heart of Montreal, two of Quebec’s most prominent thinkers on multiculturalism and reasonable accommodation, Charles Taylor and Georges Leroux, are worried about the direction the CAQ is taking the province.
Taylor, philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University, shakes his head.
“It’s a terrible step backwards,” he says. “The Proulx commission worked out the idea of how you train kids who are going to live in the 21st century in a very diverse world so that they don't have these absolutely absurd prejudices that are circulating like islamophobia, which permit legislation like [what] the Legault government has passed in Bill 21.”
No stranger to the alleged crises about integrating foreign cultures into Quebec, he investigated discontent with reasonable accommodation related to cultural differences in the Jean Charest years of the late 2000s. At the time, the Bouchard-Taylor commission found that there was no crisis, despite anxieties among some Quebecers.
Today, he fears the aggressive nationalism embodied by the CAQ and Bock-Côté.
“I'm very nervous that this government with their legislation is intending to define correct values when they have just violated Quebec values in a very stark way,” says Taylor, referring to Bill 21.
Superior Court judge Marc-André Blanchard called the religious symbols law “morally reprehensible” and a clear violation of religious rights, in an April ruling that nullified sections of Bill 21 ban last spring.
“You don’t take the worldview of a particular party and entrench it in the education system,” he says. “We can't have the government of the day dictating what Quebec's identity is by setting up a course which is going to teach them about Quebec secularism when these are precisely the issues that were fighting over.
“Anybody who has a concern for the future in our society should be very concerned that people who have already violated the Quebec charter — and won’t let the courts tell them that — are proposing to educate our kids,” says Taylor.
Leroux, professor emeritus of philosophy at Université du Québec à Montréal, has harsher words.
“It’s the triumph of nationalistic stupidity,” he says, comparing the CAQ government to Maurice Duplessis. He helped create the ERC program and believes it rightly promoted the values of reasonable accommodation and multiculturalism.
“I do not in any way want to replace this with a course that is not pluralist, that doesn’t recognize diversity, that only cares about the French-Canadian past, and the leaders of the nation.”
The change is especially worrisome given the rise of exclusionary politics around the globe, he says.
“Now, with Mr. Legault’s reform, ignorance will be ten times worse,” he warns. “I find this government dangerous. They’re really playing with fire.”
However, even Leroux, one of ERC’s founding fathers, concedes that revision is necessary.
Unlike most programs, it was never evaluated, and he insists changes, like not asking children to identify themselves by faith in primary school, could easily have been fixed without fanfare.
Nevertheless, he rejects the assertion that ERC forces students to accept all aspects of religion or limits opportunities for critiquing matters of faith.
“The curriculum wasn’t made to turn schools into a tribunal on religions where, for example, we mock Muslims who fast or say it’s stupid to do Yom Kippur,” says Leroux. “We can criticize (religion) if it is contrary to the Charter of Rights. The charter doesn’t tell us to fast or not fast. It’s live and let live.”
But not everyone agrees that all the overhaul wasn’t called for.
On content regarding First Nations, Denis Gros-Louis, director general of the FNEC, believes that the current curriculum is outdated. He hopes the new program will shed the “Hollywood clichés” like depictions of shamanism and regionalize the curriculum so that students in Gaspésie will learn about the realities of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, while students in the Montreal area learn about the Mohawk values, language, and culture.
“We want (our students) to learn their values, to be proud of their cultures, their languages, their history, and the spirituality that comes out from these facts,” says Gros-Louis. “But we don't want them to be used for partisan elections.”
It’s the end of the lesson, the post-learning part of the activity when the spark plugs in the students’ brains ignite, generating enough voltage to forge new pathways between their eyes.
Lamantia and his student teacher ask the class to share what connections they have made. Hands bolt skyward. Both baptism and circumcision are rites of passage, one student answers. Both Christians and Jews read the Old Testament, says another.
When asked if they think something valuable will be lost when the religious part of the course gets the axe, a student on exchange from Switzerland is first to share.
“Learning about people who are different from us, from different religions,” he says.
Until the Quebec Culture and Citizenship class finds its way into his schedule, Lamantia is holding on in another school year marked by the pandemic. And it’s not the first time he feels like he has to work around the politicization of his classroom to give his students a decent education.
The Reflections textbook he is forced to use for his history classes has also been accused of partisan tinkering for political gain. But for the moment, while ERC is part of the program, he’s focused on guiding the minds placed in his care through the fear and wonder of the world(s) beyond their St-Michel classroom.