Quebec to abolish ethics and religious culture course, to make way for '21st-century themes'

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge wants to overhaul the ethics and religious culture course in Quebec schools and replace it with a course that looks at different cultures rather than different religions.

Expected to be replaced by new course focusing on 'role as citizens'

A committee meets for the first time this week to begin its three year review of school curriculum and graduation requirements. (Denis Wong/CBC)

The Coalition Avenir Québec government plans to abolish the ethics and religious culture (ECR) course currently offered in Quebec schools.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said he wants to replace it with a new curriculum with a new name and a different focus.

The new course would include themes such as citizen participation, democracy, legal education, sexuality, interpersonal relationships, ethics and eco- and digital-citizenship.

The section exploring religions would be replaced with a broader theme, focusing on the cultures of different societies.

"The objective is to make more room for 21st-century themes," Roberge told Radio-Canada. "Inevitably, by making room for these new concepts, there will be less room for the concept of religious culture."

The CAQ promised to overhaul the course by the end of its first mandate, in response to criticism of the ECR curriculum, which some have denounced as being too relativistic.

Others, including the Parti Québécois, have complained it promotes the federal government's vision of multiculturalism — one that doesn't sit well with Quebec nationalists. 

Many of those same critics are proponents of Quebec's contentious Bill 21, which bans religious symbols for civil servants in positions of authority. They point out young people between the ages of 18 and 24 — who one critic has dubbed the "ECR generation" — are the most likely to see Bill 21 as an affront to fundamental rights.

A controversial course

The ECR curriculum, compulsory for elementary and high school students, came a decade after Quebec's confessional public school system was replaced by linguistic school boards. 

From the time the new course was introduced by the Charest Liberal government in 2008, it was a flash point in the debate over religious accommodation.

Quebec's secularism movement argued ethics and religious culture should not be combined in a single course and could lead students to conclude it's not possible to act ethically without religious belief. 

Some Catholic parents, as well as parents of other faiths, didn't want their children learning ethics and comparative religious beliefs outside of their own moral and religious framework and argued that making the program mandatory was unconstitutional and infringed on their religious freedom.

That argument was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, where it was rejected in a ruling that said exposing children to various religions did not constitute a violation of fundamental rights.

In the ruling, Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps wrote that exposing children to various religions "does not constitute an indoctrination of students," and the suggestion that it infringes on religious freedom is "a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government's obligations with regard to public education."

Course counters 'rising xenophobia,' says teacher

Robert Green, a Westmount High School teacher who teaches the ECR course, said he was "outraged and saddened" to hear that the CAQ government plans to abolish the course.

"This course does not teach children to be religious," Green told CBC Daybreak. 

"It teaches them about the diversity of the society in which they live."

Green said that he welcomes the other themes the government wants to include, but said it should not come at the expense of religion-focused aspects of the course.

"We are in a context right now, both in Quebec and globally, of rising xenophobia around the world and rising far right movements," he said. 

"The only way we can counter those kinds of attitudes is to teach children the truth about these different religions."

Green said that the CAQ government also enacted changes to the province's history curriculum, which were widely criticized for failing to reflect the province's diversity.

A review conducted by three historians recommended the textbooks be removed from classrooms by 2021, when they could be replaced with more suitable teaching materials.

Online questionnaire open to the public

The government will hold three forums to hear from experts in Trois-Rivières, Quebec City and Montreal in February as part of a consultation on the subject.

Citizens can also participate via an online survey which is available until Feb. 21. The survey does not ask about whether or not religion should be included in the curriculum.

A summary report on the consultations, which will be used to draft the new course, is expected to be submitted to the education ministry this spring.

The government hopes the new curriculum can be piloted in the 2021 school year and offered to all students by fall 2022.

With files from Radio-Canada, CBC Daybreak