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   Vol. 69/No. 8           February 28, 2005  
Debate opens in Quebec over public
funding for religious, private schools
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MONTREAL—Faced with growing opposition to his plans to increase public funding for religious and private education, on January 19 Quebec premier Jean Charest withdrew his proposal to nearly double state financing for private Jewish schools. The increased financing had been announced in December by the minister of education in the Liberal Party provincial government, Pierre Reid, at a ceremony to reopen the library of the United Talmud Torahs school, which had been firebombed last spring. The government aimed to use popular outrage over this anti-Semitic act to gain support for its efforts to increase state aid to religious institutions.

The proposed increase in funding from 60 percent of expenses at Jewish schools to 100 percent—supposedly earmarked for nonreligious programs only—sparked a storm of protests by advocates of the separation of church and state, reflecting the broad historic trend toward secularism. As the debate unfolded, anti-Semitic forces took advantage of the controversy to promote the reactionary lie that plans to increase funding of Jewish schools was the product of a “powerful Jewish lobby” manipulating the government for its own purposes, rather than the ongoing efforts by the ruling class in Quebec to undermine public education.

The separation of church and state is far from complete in Quebec schools. Religious instruction still exists in the big majority of public schools. Eighty-three percent of primary school students and 65 percent of high school students take classes on Christianity, either Catholic or Protestant. Exclusive instruction in other religions, however, such as Judaism and Islam, is not allowed in the public system.

Religious instruction in public schools is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights. However, in 2000 the Quebec government invoked a clause in the Canadian constitution that permits provincial governments to ignore the charter for five years. The government has until June 30 to renew the clause for another five years. According to Le Devoir, a Montreal daily, the Liberal Party government is planning to invoke this clause again.

Today public education in Quebec is divided along the lines of French-language and English-language school commissions. Prior to 1998 they had been divided along Catholic and Protestant lines. The religious division of all public schools in Montreal and Quebec City was enshrined in 1867 in the Canadian constitution known as the British North America Act.

In practice this separation along religious lines created an education system of segregated schools for the French- and English-speaking populations. The language division of the school system is one of the pillars of the national oppression of the Quebecois.

Eighty percent of Quebec’s population speaks French, and face institutionalized oppression and discrimination on the basis of their language. Official unemployment in Quebec stands at 8.4 percent, (the national average is 7 percent). More than one-third of all working people receiving welfare in Canada lived in Quebec in 2003, while Quebecois only make up about one-quarter of the population.

The drop out rate of students in the French system is much higher than for those in the English system. In 1990, 53 per cent of the total French school population graduated the final year of high school, whereas 70 per cent of the English sector graduated. In 2001, for the 25-34 years age group, 20 per cent of Montreal residents had university degrees compared with 26 for Toronto, which is largely English-speaking.

In Quebec, one out of 10 students goes to private schools, the highest percentage of any province in Canada. In Quebec 5.6 per cent of primary school students go to private schools and 17.8 percent to private secondary schools. In Montreal, the respective percentages are 14.6 and 29 percent.

The provincial government covers 60 per cent of the budget for these schools. The only exception up to now had been the 100 percent financing of two Greek schools, which began 20 years ago.

Of the 318 private schools in Quebec, 29 are linked to a nationality or a religious group. There are 16 Jewish schools, seven for Muslims, three for Armenians, two for Greeks and one for Egyptians. One-half of the 7,000 Jewish students in Montreal attend private schools.

Among those who reacted in defense of the public school system was Réjean Parent, the president of the Quebec Union Confederation, who said Jean Charest “has not succeeded in demonstrating the correctness of his government’s decision to 100 percent finance ethno-religious schools. This is a very serious decision because it threatens the coexistence and equilibrium we have succeeded in establishing through the years.”

The Coalition for the Deconfessionalization of the School System responded to the government’s action by calling for the government to end the teaching of Catholicism and Protestantism in public schools.

Expressions of anti-Jewish prejudice were voiced in the capitalist media to give a conspiratorial explanation for Charest’s plan to increase the financing of Jewish schools. Vincent Marissal, a columnist for La Presse, another Montreal daily, wrote January 19, “It’s upsetting, obviously, to see that a rich and well-organized lobby can apparently end up directly influencing fundamental decisions of a government. The Jewish lobby is just that—rich, powerful and organized.” A caricature in the same newspaper showed the minister of education dressed as a Hasidic Jew refusing funding to someone with a Sikh-sounding name.

Much of the media coverage of the government decision fueled anti-Semitic sentiment by linking the school funding plan to a Liberal Party fund-raiser organized by Minister of Revenue Lawrence Bergman, who is Jewish. La Presse also made mention of Steven Cummings as “an important actor in the Jewish community” who has “unrestricted access” to Charest.  
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