The vehicular assault last June that murdered the Afzaal family in London, Ont., really affected my then-preschooler. Her best friend here in Sherbrooke, Que., is Muslim. Her friend’s mother wears the hijab. We suddenly found ourselves explaining Islamophobia, a challenge incomparable to the fear Muslim people live with on a daily basis.
Around the same time, an evangelical school teacher was misappropriating Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program by spending several weeks on Easter while neglecting to mention Passover and the holy month of Ramadan.
This was not what the ERC program was supposed to do. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The program was launched in 2008 and has been mandatory in all public and private schools from kindergarten to Grade 11. It is a platform for important conversations about diversity, social justice issues and faith practice in our complex world. Students ask tricky spiritual questions. Teachers need a diverse religious education in their professional development. They are trained to answer questions about death, God, heaven and hell, and why bad things happen. They are capable of offering impartial and unbiased wisdom.
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There has been pushback, of course. Some conservative religious private schools lost the battle to avoid teaching about other faiths. Some atheist parents argued that religion had no place in schools.
Unfortunately, a pluralistic, diverse understanding of social and cultural issues doesn’t play well with Quebec’s nationalist ideology. Quebec continues to struggle with its broken relationship with religion and the Roman Catholic Church. This unchecked emotional baggage and trauma are part of the root cause of laws such as Bill 21, which limits public servants from wearing overt religious symbols. This 2019 “secularism bill” was seen by critics and people outside Quebec as an obviously xenophobic expression of systemic racism built on colonialism and white supremacy, but many Québécois see it as a form of liberation for those trapped inside another controlling religion.
Teaching and learning about ethics and religious culture is one small way to address our white supremacist history. Polarized extremes are detrimental to everyone. We can create spaces inside our schools to explore big life questions, to celebrate and deepen understanding of different cultures, and to nurture the curiosity and wonder that all children possess. Frankly, I think we are only scratching the surface of anti-racist education.
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The current Quebec government plans to remove the ERC program from schools, replacing it in 2023 with curriculum focused on citizenship and culture. As a Québécois parent and educator, I am so sad that many children will grow up with a lack of religious literacy, and frankly I think it is a dangerous move rooted in fear and ignorance.
We must build a new culture based on values of respect and diversity. Division and control will never create a thriving and united Quebec. We must empower our children — like my daughter and her Muslim friend — with knowledge and the tools to fight the racial violence they will encounter in their lives.
Shanna Bernier is a United Church regional youth minister from Quebec’s Eastern Townships and the mom of two wonderful kids.
This piece first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2022 issue with the title “Religious literacy in a secular world.”
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