Montreal

Religious community north of Montreal failed its children, lawyer for ex-Hasidic couple says

Yohanan and Shifra Lowen argue Quebec's Education Ministry should have done more to regulate religious schools in Tash, a Hasidic community about 30 kilometres north of Montreal.

Yohanan and Shifra Lowen say they didn't get an adequate education in Tash enclave

Yohanan Lowen, right, and his wife, Shifra, are taking the Quebec government to court. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Quebec may have violated its own laws by tolerating illegal religious schools and failing to ensure its students got a decent education, a lawyer for two ex-Hasidic Jews said in his opening arguments of a civil trial that began Monday.

Bruce Johnston represents Yohanan and Shifra Lowen, who grew up in Tash, an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Boisbriand, about 30 kilometres north of Montreal.

Johnston told the courtroom as children, the Lowens received virtually no secular education while attending private religious schools run by the community.

The schooling for boys in Tash was particularly limited, he said, and when Yohanan graduated, he was unable to speak French and could only speak limited English.

"We're not saying these people are ill-intentioned, but whatever strategy they had was a failure," he told the court, before putting this question to the judge: "By tolerating illegal schools, did the government violate its own law?"

Tash youth couldn't count change, says lawyer

Johnston told Quebec Superior Court Justice Martin Castonguay his clients don't want money.

They're seeking a declaratory judgment that would force the province to take steps to ensure children who attend private religious schools are taught the provincial curriculum.

Johnston said the evidence will show that, upon graduation, the "vast majority" of boys in Tash were not ready for the world — and could not, for example, read a restaurant menu or count out change when paying for something.

The province's attorney general, along with several religious schools and a rabbinical college in Tash, are named in the lawsuit. 

David Banon, a lawyer representing the schools, argued in his own opening statement that much has changed in Tash in the two decades since Yohanan, now 42, and Shifra, 41, attended schools in the community. The couple is married with four children.

Banon said today, the "arrangement works" between school boards, parents and the religious schools.

Éric Cantin, a lawyer for the attorney general's office, also acknowledged there were problems in the past but said the situation has improved. 

He also suggested parents must take responsibility for the education of their children.

In 2017, under the previous Liberal government, the province reached a compromise with several schools, whereby religion is taught at school and the provincial curriculum taught at home under the supervision of the local school board.

Those rules were tightened again under the Coalition Avenir Québec government to ensure students learn a subject in the same year as their peers in public school and take part in mandated provincial exams.

Religion the focus for boys, witness says

Marie-Josée Bernier, a youth protection official who assessed schools in the community, was the first person to testify. 

As a result of several visits to the community in 2014 and 2015, she said, it was determined boys there were taught "little to nothing" from the provincial curriculum, while the girls received a balance between a religious and "secular education" — including learning math, social sciences and English.

The boys were, in general, found to "have a strong ability to learn," she testified, but their secular education was sorely lacking. 

She said about 280 of the 320 boys who were assessed were flagged for further monitoring, given their poor level of English and math skills. 

By 2017, she said, the situation had improved, thanks to collaboration between parents and the local English school board, Sir Wilfred Laurier.

At that point, fewer than 100 boys were flagged for further monitoring.

Education 'necessary to succeed,' says home-schooling official

Ugo-Mercier Gouin, who oversaw private religious schools on behalf of the Education Ministry, testified Monday afternoon.

He told the court he found the children could speak very little French and alerted both the local French and English school boards to that situation in 2013. 

During cross-examination, Cantin pointed out Gouin had also alerted parents to the problem, in a separate letter.

Abraham Ekstein, a spokesperson for Quebec's Jewish Association for Homeschooling, said outside the courtroom the arrangement with the school boards has been positive.

"At this point, all the children in the community and overall in Quebec, they are registered," he told reporters.

"They are monitored. They are followed very closely by the government, so everyone is getting an education which is necessary to succeed in life."

The CAQ government has just passed a law abolishing school boards, and when asked how home-schooling will be monitored from this point on, Ekstein said that had yet to be determined.

The trial is expected to last two weeks and will include testimony from members of the community, representatives from the Education Ministry and the plaintiffs themselves.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

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