Montreal

Quebec knew about religious schools in Hasidic community for decades, trial hears

The Quebec government was aware that schools in the Hasidic community of Tash, north of Montreal, were operating without a permit and failing to provide children with an adequate secular education, a courtroom heard Tuesday.

Lawyer for ex-Hasidic couple questions Education Ministry officials over government inaction

Yohanan Lowen alleges the province failed to ensure he received a proper education in the Hasidic community of Tash. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

For decades, the Quebec government was aware that schools in the Hasidic community of Tash, north of Montreal, were operating without a permit and failing to provide children with an adequate secular education, a courtroom heard Tuesday.

Bruce Johnston, a lawyer for 42-year-old Yohanan Lowen and his wife Shifra, 41, questioned an Education Ministry bureaucrat about the government's years of inaction on the second day of a trial pitting the former Hasidic Jewish couple against the province and the community they grew up in.

The Lowens, now married and living in Montreal, say they missed out on learning the basics, including French and English, math and geography, leaving them ill-prepared for life in the outside world. 

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

In court, Johnston acknowledged that the province faces "complex" challenges in tracking the education of children in a religious community such as Tash, which was founded in 1962.

But he asked Maryse Malenfant, a former director at the Education Ministry whose job was to oversee private schools, to explain why nothing had been done, despite a 1995 report showing religious schools had been operating in the community since 1980.

Johnston pointed to a letter sent to parents in 2007, asking her to explain why there had been no communication with families prior to that point.

"I can't," Malenfant told the court. "As far as I know this was the first time."

Malenfant recounted how, in the ensuing years, the Education Ministry more closely monitored students and the schools.

But she acknowledged there were still problems when the province's youth protection agency conducted an assessment of students at those schools in 2014 and 2015.

Those assessments found that boys, in particular, showed a lack of understanding of secular subjects, the court heard Monday.

Home-schooling now in place

One of the key questions in the trial is to what extent the situation has improved since those assessments were done.

In 2017, the former Liberal government reached a compromise with several religious schools, permitting children to study the provincial curriculum at home with their parents or a tutor under the supervision of a local school board.

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

Caroline Kelly, the Education Ministry director overseeing home-schooling, told the court that roughly 830 students from Tash take part in the program, with the oversight of the Sir Wilfred Laurier School Board, and it has been successful.

She said all home-schooled children in the province are required to follow the same rules.

A December 2019 report prepared by the Sir Wilfed Laurier board and presented in court Tuesday noted parents in Tash often have difficulty teaching their children the curriculum, given they aren't familiar with the material themselves.

The school board said it had prepared a "master document" to help parents track their children's learning. 

The trial continues Wednesday and is expected to last two weeks.

The Lowens, whose legal names are Yochonon Lowen and Clara Wasserstein, are among those expected to testify.

About the Author

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

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