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Faith-Based Education May Result in Loss of House and Home in Quebec
Fifteen Mennonite families would rather move than have their children instructed in subject matter to which Mennonites object on grounds of religious belief.

While Ontario voters ruminate on the issue of whether or not the government should extend funding to faith-based schools, the province of Quebec has already done so under a different form. In Quebec, a school—including faith-based schools—may receive government funding at approximately 60 percent of the public rate if it follows the mandated provincial curriculum and provides instruction in French or English.

… Ministry of Social Services officials are prepared to apprehend the children …

However, what about non-funded faith-based schools?

Media reports indicate that Mennonite families in Roxton Falls, Quebec, have been ordered by Ministry of Education officials to have their children instructed in subject matter to which Mennonites object on grounds of religious belief—evolution and alternative sexual lifestyles. The reports also indicate that Ministry of Social Services officials are prepared to apprehend the children if they are not either placed in government sponsored schools or agree to follow government approved curriculum in their own school.

Quebec government officials have stated they perceive this situation to be one of education standards. The Mennonite community was advised last fall that curriculum adherence would be required for their school to remain open. Failing that, the students would have to be registered in provincially approved schools.

In the interim, the Government of Quebec established the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences on February 8, 2007, to examine situations where accommodation of cultural differences, including religious beliefs, is required.

It would seem a logical and simple step that the Ministries of Education and Social Services would hold off on taking any action until after the Bouchard-Taylor Commission issues its final report which is due in March 2008. However, officials from these ministries have not responded to requests from the Mayor of Roxton Falls or the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada to do so.

These government officials are either not familiar with or question the authenticity of the expressed religious objection to certain of the curriculum requirements of the Ministry of Education. The Mennonite expression found in Roxton Falls does affirm religious beliefs that present legitimate objection to curriculum noted in the media reports. These same Mennonite beliefs encourage acceptance of other people for who they are, regardless of any differences of opinion on religious beliefs or practices. Even without the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, this religious community should be entitled to continue their school under provisions of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The Quebec Charter recognizes the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion (s. 3). The beliefs expressed by the Mennonite community are sincerely held individually and as tenets of communal religious belief. Each of the members of the Mennonite community is entitled, under the Quebec Charter (s. 10), to the "full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights and freedoms … "

The Quebec Charter also recognizes certain rights in regard to education (s. 40-42). There is an apparent conflict between the parents' "right to give their children a religious and moral education in keeping with their convictions" and the education requirements as established by the Province of Quebec.

The conflict of the freedoms of conscience and religion and the parents' right to give their children a religious and moral education with the Province's right to set curriculum standards will not, however, be resolved by means of a complaint filed by the people affected by this government practice because this group's faith prohibits them from engaging in a confrontational process to pursue their rights.

There are no children in danger. Still, these 15 families may be compelled to move elsewhere to pursue their right to educate their children. The mayor and people of Roxton Falls have described these families as valuable contributors to the community and economy of Roxton Falls. The citizens of Roxton Falls do not wish to lose friends and neighbours, or suffer the economic setback that the loss of 15 families can bring to a community of 1,300. If forced to move, extended families will be separated as those with school-aged children relocate and others remain to look after farms and properties.

Sadly, this may be an unfortunate repetition of one of Canada's most embarrassing episodes of denied freedom of religion. When Manitoba and Saskatchewan officials insisted on public school attendance by Mennonite children in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, the 6,000 in Mennonite communities established there moved to Latin America where the freedom to practice their religion was assured. Now you know why there are Mennonite communities and schools in Mexico. But, in today's Canada should anyone have to travel such distance to enjoy our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms?

Failure of the Government of Quebec to act quickly and compassionately in this situation will result in harm rather than good—to hundreds of people and the reputation of both a province and our nation.

Don Hutchinson is General Legal Counsel for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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