Submission of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) to la Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles



    MONTREAL, Dec. 11 /CNW Telbec/ -

    I. Introduction

    The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) offers the following
reflections to these hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on behalf of
its nine member school boards, who serve some 110,000 students in
350 elementary and high schools and adult centres across Quebec. There has
been much legitimate speculation about whether and how the Commission will
improve the capacity of individuals and institutions of Quebec to identify and
reconcile our diversity and our common values. Equally legitimate concerns
have been raised regarding the political exploitation of these important
issues and the unfortunate platform that has been afforded to some marginal
voices of intolerance and exclusion.
    It is a discussion that has evolved, perhaps unfortunately and
unnecessarily, into a sometimes unwieldy and wide-ranging public debate about
identity, inclusion, diversity and religion in Quebec. The discussion, and our
collective conclusions from it, will have a bearing on the image Quebec
projects to the rest of the world, the level and quality of immigrants we thus
attract and the future of our well-deserved reputation as a modern and
compassionate society.
    QESBA is deeply cognizant of the key responsibility placed upon our
schools to help our children develop the capacity, compassion, perspective and
wisdom to build their identities, to address over their lifetimes the same
difficult issues being faced by this Commission. That is why, despite some
reservations about the mandate and functioning of the Commission, we sincerely
welcome the opportunity to appear before it.
    It has only been 10 years since Quebec school boards were reorganized
along linguistic rather than confessional lines. That said, our English public
schools have a long tradition of welcoming students of diverse backgrounds.
The notion of bringing together a wide variety of languages, races, religions
and cultures has been central to English schooling for many years. Of course,
prior to the adoption of the Charter of the French Language in 1977, a
disproportionately large percentage of new immigrants to Quebec registered in
English schools. In the years since, access to English schools is essentially
limited to those children whose parents studied in English in Canada.
Consequently, the diversity of the English school population has been less
pronounced in the ensuing years. Nevertheless, our schools, particularly in
metropolitan Montreal, continue to welcome eligible students with roots in
many different cultural communities.
    QESBA has been pleased to be represented on the Comité consultatif sur
l'intégration et l'accommodement raisonnable en milieu scolaire, an ad hoc
advisory body to the Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports. It will
have submitted its final report to Mme Michelle Courchesne on November 20,
2007. The mandate of that committee was to produce a definition of reasonable
accommodation as well as a series of suggested tools and professional
development measures to help Quebec schools deal fairly and positively with
questions of diversity. While QESBA will not attempt to duplicate the
excellent work of that advisory committee, it is important that this
Commission recognize the central role of our schools in promoting a vision of
Quebec society that is the subject of a strong consensus and, when
appropriate, shaping that vision. As any educator or parent can remind us, our
children can teach us as much as they can learn from us about reasonable
accommodation.
    A final word of introduction: We are pleased to be here to help address
an opportunity, not a problem. Quebec society, as a product of its economic
and cultural wealth, its traditions of openness and democracy is fortunate to
be among those destinations that attracts newcomers from around the world.
Yes, integrating newcomers, finding the workable balance between assimilation
and isolation, inculcating a sense of shared values are all important
challenges. But, Quebec needs newcomers, and we are enriched by them.
Quebecers needn't be threatened by diversity. To suggest otherwise is to
betray the confident and forward-looking society that we have become.

    II. Who we are

    The 350 English public schools of Quebec represent a profile of
diversity. There are one-room school houses on Entry Island in the Magdalen
Islands and in Vaudreuil-Soulanges, which is only 45 minutes from Montreal.
Large high schools of over 1,000 can be found in large urban areas, as well as
in smaller towns of the Eastern Townships and the South Shore. Some English
schools serve students who live in majority francophone communities, others in
communities that are ethnically, racially and linguistically diverse. For an
increasing number of our students, the main language spoken at home is
actually French. The same type of variations describe the more than
14,000 teachers, administrators, professionals, support staff and elected
commissioners in the English public school system.
    A further defining characteristic of our school network is its
recognition and advancement of cultural, racial and religious diversity. Many
of our school boards have detailed and comprehensive policies assuring and
promoting a multicultural and multiracial approach to education. Over the
years, a second, equally defining characteristic of our schools has been the
determination with which the system has addressed the priority of rendering
our students conversant and comfortable in Quebec's main language. The French
immersion programs pioneered within the English school network of Quebec have
become a world-class model for second-language instruction. It is a
fundamental objective of each of the nine English school boards to equip
students with the French language skills they will need to build their futures
here in Quebec. As we grapple with our own challenges of retaining and
strengthening our English-speaking communities across Quebec, the English
schools in those communities are playing a very positive role in promoting the
integration of their students into a changing Quebec society.
    Our schools, of course, implement and evaluate the same curriculum
prescribed by the Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports for all Quebec
schools. We work very closely with our francophone school board partners in
contributing to the development of those programs and to the full range of
deliberations on pedagogy, financing, complementary services and school
governance that shape Quebec's education system.
    It is worth noting that the elected school boards comprising our
membership have a special and direct relationship with the communities they
represent. School commissioners are elected by universal suffrage, and at our
nine member boards, they are the only level of government uniquely accountable
to those who identify with the English-speaking communities of Quebec. With
that in mind, we have permitted ourselves the latitude in this brief to
comment on a range of issues before this Commission, including some that go
beyond the normal purview of public education. We are respectful of the
diversity of opinion that inevitably exists within the communities we serve on
the key questions before this Commission. That said, QESBA believes that there
is a strong level of consensus on the positions we have outlined herein.

    III. Our understanding of the current debate

    QESBA duly notes the mandate of the Commission, as prescribed by the
government of Quebec in its decree of last February:

    
    - take stock of accommodation practices in Québec;
    - analyse the attendant issues bearing in mind the experience of other
      societies;
    - conduct an extensive consultation on this topic; and
    - formulate recommendations to the government to ensure that
      accommodation practices conform to the values of Québec society as a
      pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian society.

    We further recognize that the Commission has chosen to interpret that
mandate widely, rather than narrowly:

    "The second approach to the Commission's mandate would be to perceive
    the debate on reasonable accommodation as the symptom of a more basic
    problem concerning the socio-cultural integration model established in
    Québec since the 1970s. This perspective calls for a review of
    inter-culturalism, immigration, secularism and the theme of Quebec
    identity. The Commission has decided to follow the second course with a
    view to grasping the problem at its sources and examining it from every
    angle."

    While we acknowledge the choice of this second approach, it is important
to begin with the core principle invoked in the mandate, that of reasonable
accommodation. QESBA contends that this legal concept offers some fairly clear
guidance to government, institutional leaders and to all Quebecers on the
reconciliation of shared values and individual religious and cultural
practices: When there is a conflict between those values and practices,
efforts must be made to seek that reconciliation. Generally, if it can be
ascertained that the practice is of fundamental importance to the individual,
then it should be accommodated so long as it does not impose an excessive
constraint on those shared values.
    We wouldn't be so presumptuous as to try to curtail a formal public debate
about to enter its third season with one likely over-simplified paragraph
above, but QESBA would remind the Commission that this important concept of
balance can and will be taught to students from Grades 1 through Secondary V,
in the Ethics and Religious Culture Program to be introduced next Fall.
Surely, it can be embraced by our wider society as well as it grapples with
the inevitably worthy questions of how to address diversity.
    There are gaps in the jurisprudence, to be sure. Notably, a clear test
case has yet to establish, as we trust and hope one soon will, that the Québec
Education Program can be shielded from any limits on its full implementation
by a demand for reasonable accommodation. Potential requests from students or
their parents to be exempted from routine pedagogical programs: music,
physical education, studies of evolution or, the aforementioned Ethics and
Religious Culture Program are not and should not be receivable, in the view of
QESBA. That said, can a student or teacher's request to be absent for
religious observance of key holidays be reconciled with values and practices
shared by the majority? Our school network continues to answer 'yes' to that
type of question.
    We think it's worth reiterating that many politicians and media
commentators have done a disservice in casting a number of otherwise
circumscribed issues on this topic in an alarmist and damaging light. The
right of a student of Sikh origin, for example, to wear the kirpan in school,
has now been established by the Supreme Court of Canada. Based on its
assessment that the kirpan, fully sheathed, could not be credibly considered
as a weapon, the Court ruled that its presence did not impose an excessive
constraint upon the majority. The issues surrounding this question are
admittedly difficult and potentially divisive. Nevertheless, banner headlines
and wilful misrepresentations of school board responses to the matter served
to create rather than properly report upon the news in this case.
    Similarly, an initial response, offered in good faith, if perhaps
ill-advised, to a request from a Hassidic Jewish community representative to
have the windows of an exercise room covered, received international coverage,
and was so blatantly misidentified as an issue of reasonable accommodation. No
such legal principle was at play. The institution in question was under no
obligation to even consider the request - nor did the individual who made it
ever begin to presume such an obligation.
    QESBA mentions this example, not directly pertinent to our role as
educators, because it is instructive in reminding us how the vast majority of
questions and potential conflicts reconciling values and practices are - and
should be - addressed. They needn't incite hasty measures to amend
legislation, or immediate recourse to the courts or arbitration, nor media or
political exploitation. Instead, most of these matters can best be handled
through discussion, compassion and voluntary adjustments by all parties. Every
day, in schools, businesses and community establishments across Quebec,
reconciliations are realized to resolve conflicts between majority values and
individual practices. These are positive compromises; neither the system nor
the individual is compromised. Whether the given situation involves students
or members of staff, it is our contention that voluntary adjustment can
usually be the solution rather than the more complex and difficult recourse
involving an assessment of reasonable accommodation.

    IV. The role of education

    Granted, the intense interest in the hearings of the Commission probably
signals that many Quebecers have pressing and pervasive questions prompted by
the reasonable accommodation debate...questions about identity and religious
expression, language and equality. It is not immediately clear to us whether
it was helpful to seek the answers to those questions all at once. What is
important to us as educators is that our students be equipped with the tools
and the information to make thoughtful and responsible choices as they
inevitably address those questions themselves. In this regard, QESBA has every
confidence that the new Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERCP) will play
a valuable role.
    First, it is a constructive final step in the laicization of the public
school system. Linguistic school boards replaced confessional structures only
a decade ago, and have since provided the catalyst for the legitimate and
widely-supported move away from Catholic and Protestant education programs in
our schools. Second, the curriculum it prescribes is well-considered,
reflective of a modern Quebec and respectful of its common values and history.
The preamble to the program is inspired, we think, and even useful as a prism
through which all Quebecers might view the issues before this Commission:
    "Our society is characterized by a multitude of beliefs and values, and
this diversity adds to the richness of Quebec culture. If we are to fully
appreciate the extent of this contribution, however, we must recognize the
contribution of the individuals and groups who make up the social fabric of
Quebec's society. But diversity can also be a source of tension. Living
together in today's society requires that we provide ourselves with points of
reference for understanding the world around us, for engaging in dialogue and
making informed choices. The ERC program opens the door to this knowledge."
    In describing the religious culture aspect of the program, the preamble
continues: "Instruction in religious culture promotes an understanding of the
main constituents of religions and of the sociocultural contexts in which they
take root and continue to develop. (...) This program takes a special look at
Quebec's religious heritage, which has been shaped by Catholicism and
Protestantism. This heritage has also been influenced by Judaism and Native
spirituality. Today, other religious and spiritual traditions also contribute
to Quebec's culture and inspire its various modes of existence, action and
thought. By calling for dialogue in a spirit of openness and discernment,
instruction in religious culture fosters the recognition of diversity."
    It will be important to provide teachers with the necessary support and
training to implement this ambitious program. Furthermore, parents will have
to be sensitized to its goals and orientations. Significant resources should
be devoted to those efforts.
    The program is a concrete response to our collective and irrevocable
decision as Quebecers to embrace diversity and to fully participate in a
rapidly evolving and internationally interdependent world. We deeply respect
the tensions that this decision sometimes causes, particularly with regard to
the protection of the French language and to the place of traditional
religious practice in Quebec. On the first matter, we reiterate that Quebec's
English schools are a vital partner in promoting the French language and
culture, through their unconditional determination to help young students in
our schools master the language and fully appreciate the culture. On the
second matter, we endorse the ERCP objective of providing students with a
grounding in Quebec's predominantly Catholic and Protestant roots. And,
incidentally, we deplore as wasteful and irrelevant any polemics on chiselling
granite crosses off school buildings or banishing reindeer from Kindergarten
story-telling. There is room in a modern Quebec for respectful recognition of
common traditions. Thus, QESBA is very comfortable with the promotion of
French as a common and shared value by all of us. We also endorse recognizing
our common religious and historic roots.
    It is equally important to us that the historic and ongoing contribution
of English-speaking Quebec, its language, culture and distinct place in this
province, be recognized as a vital element of the Quebec portrait we share
with newcomers to Quebec. It is important that this vital aspect of Quebec
life be part of our public discourse. We offer this reflection because it is
deeply felt by the members of the communities we serve, but also in the
important current context. The Charter of the French Language circumscribes
the use of English as it does access to English schools. Its legitimacy and
its popularity are not the subjects of debate before this Commission. Our
point here is to underline that the English school system, like the
communities we serve, has a positive and perhaps under-utilized potential to
help bridge the gap between other minority communities and French Quebecers
who have deeper roots in the the province and who form its majority. We invite
this Commission to recommend that this potential be fully and positively
exploited.
    A third value, equality, despite its self-evident morality, is more
problematic, in our view. We refer specifically to sexual equality, and
persistent suggestions that it be given a hierarchical value amongst other
fundamental rights in Quebec. QESBA is not prepared to endorse two specific
proposals that have been put forward in the current context: First, we are
most uncomfortable with a blanket recommendation by the Conseil de la Statut
de la femme that sexual equality guarantees predominate over rights of
religious freedom. We reject the suggestion that there is a need to establish
this hierarchy in order to properly defend and assure gender equality.
    Furthermore, we are worried that the legitimate exercise of religious
freedom might be consequently and unnecessarily compromised in some cases. For
example, QESBA has no doubt that the protection of workers against
discrimination based on gender can and must be fully assured under existing
laws. We do not believe that it is legitimate or respectful of gender equality
to grant an individual of a certain faith the request for a driving instructor
or other service provider of the same sex. To properly refuse such a request,
however, hardly requires that Quebec's Charter of Human Rights be changed.
Where the Charter would have to be changed, and here, the Premier of Quebec
has, to our disappointment, essentially endorsed the Conseil proposal, would
be to permit the prohibition of all public sector employees to wear any
clearly identifiable religious symbols while on the job.
    First, the suggestion that such symbols automatically indicate the
subjugation of women is incorrect at best and pejorative at worst. Second, it
invites the retrograde impression that there is only one way to be a Quebecer.
That, thankfully, runs contrary to the pedagogical vision of the Ethics and
Religious Culture Program we will begin implementing next year, and we
believe, contrary to the generous instincts of most Quebecers. If anything,
Quebec's public and parapublic institutions have a role to play in better
demonstrating that they are inclusive, in who they hire and how they serve the
public.
    Thus, we further reject a related suggestion from the Conseil: "Qu'il soit
affirmé, dans la Loi sur l'instruction publique, que la valeur d'égalité entre
les sexes doit être véhiculée dans les politiques d'éducation et qu'elle ne
doit pas être mise de côté pour des considérations religieuses ou
culturelles." Yes, students can only benefit from a full understanding of the
importance of sexual equality and the centrality of that value to all
Quebecers. They needn't be taught, incorrectly, that this centrality is
necessarily compromised by religious or cultural considerations.

    V. Recommendations

    The following recommendations are inspired by, if not directly linked to
the reflections offered in this brief. Some would involve voluntary action by
various stakeholders involved in issues related to reasonable accommodation
and acceptance of diversity; others might be facilitated through changes in
government policies and directives. QESBA also invites this Commission itself
to embrace certain suggestions outlined below in its own final report:

    1.  Encourage the Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports to develop
        a communications plan to explain the values and raison d'être of the
        new Ethics and Religious Culture Program to all Quebecers.
    2.  Facilitate the greater involvement of English school boards and other
        English-speaking community establishments in integrating newcomers to
        Quebec, and in promoting Quebec's common values.
    3.  Recognize that, in order to fully play the larger role we propose in
        Recommendation 2, the long-term stability of Quebec's English school
        network must be assured. It is, in our view, perfectly pertinent for
        this Commission to recommend that Quebecers undertake a serene and
        serious discussion of how this can be done, while maintaining the
        necessary and legitimate priorities of protecting and promoting
        French as the common language of Quebec.
    4.  Reject any precipitous moves to amend Quebec's Charter of Human
        Rights while inviting the government to entrench the Charter in a way
        that shields it from simple amendment by majority vote.
    5.  Invite schools, government agencies and community organizations to
        multiply French-second language programs to be made accessible to
        non-francophone adults.
    6.  Encourage the MELS to promote the presence and richness of Quebec's
        diversity, in all pertinent areas of studies.
    7.  Similarly, the Quebec government and all of Quebec's public
        establishments and organizations should be invited to reflect
        Quebec's rich diversity in their activities, their appointment of
        staff and nominations to their Board of Directors.
    8.  Encourage the media to use self-restraint, to exercise responsibility
        in its coverage of the Commission and the important issues it has
        raised.
    9.  In the final report of the Commission, offer clear guidelines on the
        limits upon/as well as rights conferred by reasonable accommodation.
    10. Invite corporate leadership to contribute its views, resources and
        expertise to a campaign to promote Quebec's openness to immigration
        and diversity.
    11. Support positive efforts to promote the learning of French while
        rejecting any suggestion that citizenship in Quebec be linked to
        mastery of the French language.
    12. Encourage linguistic and cultural exchanges between English and
        French schools.
    13. Encourage cultural community associations and representatives to
        promote greater general awareness of their particular traditions,
        language and history; and encourage them to participate in the
        sensitizing their members to Quebec's common values.
    




For further information:

For further information: Kimberly Hamilton, Communications and special
projects officer, (514) 849-5900, ext. 225, cell.: (514) 919-3894


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