Quebec ethics course stirs debate among parents, teachers

Some Quebec parents and educators are protesting the introduction of a new, provincially sanctioned ethics and religion course that will be taught in all schools starting this fall.

Some Quebec parents and educators are protesting the introduction of a new, provincially sanctioned ethics and religion course that will be taught in all schools starting this fall.

The mandatory course replaces three classes previously taught in Quebec schools — moral education, Catholic religious and moral instruction, and Protestant moral and religious education.

The new course, mandatory for all students except those in Grade 9, was developed by the Quebec Education Ministry to foster harmonious social relations, according to the government.

It covers the world's main religions, including Judaism and First Nations spirituality, and explores ethics.

A group of parents in Valcourt, Que., who oppose the course said they plan to pull their children out of the class.

They've rented space at a local Knights of Columbus community hall in the Eastern Townships, where they say they will send their children during the ethics course.

Sylvain Lamontagne, a parent of two children, said he has 11 volunteers ready to supervise students who pull out of the class.

"We are ready to go as far as we have to [to keep our children out of the class], regardless of the consequences," he told CBC.

The course threatens his children's Christian faith, he said.

Boycotting the course will have serious consequences for students, who will fail the course if they don't complete the requirements, said Christian Provencher, a spokesman for the local school board.

Students will still be able to graduate, he said.

Loyola takes issue with course methodology

In Montreal, a private Catholic high school for boys is appealing the ministry's decision to turn down a request for exemption made earlier this year.

Educators at Loyola High School requested exemption from the class because of its methodology, and because the private institution already offers a course on world religions. 

Principal Paul Donovan said he doesn't have a problem with the mandatory course curriculum per se, but with how the Education Ministry has structured the class.

"There's nothing wrong, and we have no problem with the goals of the course, which is to promote tolerance and promote getting along with people around you," he told CBC. "Our problem is with the method."

The ethics portion of the course promotes relativity, which is contrary to Loyola's educational philosophy, he said.

"Is there a way to determine what's right and what's wrong, or do we just say that everything stays status quo, and nobody can ever know?" he asked.

"That's not the way laws are changed, that's not the way society changes and improves. Ethics have to supersede law and culture."

The government shouldn't be allowed to dictate how Loyola teaches religion, he said.

"Is it right for the government to say all people in Quebec society have to subscribe to one particular type of philosophy, which is what this is? It's a kind of relativistic philosophy."

Teachers at Loyola have already attended training sessions on the new curriculum, and are sufficiently familiar with the material to be able to teach it, Donovan said.

But he can't in good conscience start teaching the course, he said.

Parents can request individual course exemptions

Under Quebec education laws, two types of course exemption requests can be made — for a school, or for an individual student.

Normally parents have to apply to their school board directly to request an exemption from a course.

But Loyola is not part of any school board, so the principal can grant individual exemptions.

Donovan said he has received more than 600 individual requests from parents who want personal exemptions for their children, which covers about 85 per cent of the student body.

He said he'll wait for the appeal before granting individual exemptions.

Private schools are welcome to teach additional material on religions, but the ethics course is designed for all students in the province, said ministry spokeswoman Stéphanie Tremblay.