Just a few years ago, the idea of “neutral” schools in Quebec—meaning unaffiliated schools that would replace or supplement the strictly Protestant and strictly Catholic systems that now exist —would have been about as popular as the idea of taking religion out of the Mass. Yet “neutral” schools, or at least the first steps toward them, have been one of the most common subjects discussed before the Parent Commission, which since last November has been examining education in Quebec and will continue to hold public hearings until late spring. Already, the powerful Quebec Federation of Labor has endorsed the idea of “neutral” schools and there are signs that it is gaining momentum elsewhere. The most evident sign (although it has not been evident in the English press) is a loose organization called Le Mouvement Laïque de Langue Française, which has yet to present its brief to the Parent Commission but which will undoubtedly come out with one of the strongest arguments yet in favor of “neutral” schools.
Dissatisfaction is not new
Dissatisfaction with the school system, of course, is not new'. There has been some discontent here for years. Most of it has been among FrenchCanadian parents who Frei that religion is too prominently built into (dl subjects taught in the Catholic schools. Sample sentences used to teach grammar, they say, are more often than not catchphrases of church doctrine; history is taught in a strictly religious framework (the motives of the early French explorers, for instance, are given as purely missionary); the children are often versed in catechism at the expense of. say, current events. An irate father not long ago showed me his daughter’s gradefour homework; she had been asked to answer such questions as, “Where was Monsignor born?” “Who were his parents?” Further, the nominally Catholic French parent, no matter how far he may have drifted from the church, has virtually no alternative (short of formally changing his religion before a notary) to sending his child to a Catholic school. And for some minorities, such as the Jews, the situation is even worse; if Jewish parents do not want their children exposed to Christian doctrine in the classroom, they must send them to private school, which, in fact, many Jewish parents do. (Jewish children may attend the Protestant schools but their parents cannot serve on the school commission.)
Until recently, when such dissatisfaction was expressed, it was expressed privately — on the eminently realistic grounds that there was no chance of changing the status quo and nothing to be gained by arguing about it. Now there is a chance of change. Premier Jean Lesage has said repeatedly that the “lag in education” is one of the major concerns of his government. Fie has proved that concern by setting up the Parent Commission itself, and also by giving a grant of $200 a year to every high school student in the province. Will the change be as drastic as a complete “neutralization” of all the schools? Not
sanglant likely. But the fact that the Parent Commission has already heard so much of this up-to-now heretical subject, and will hear more, means that there w'ill almost certainly be some recognition of it in the commission’s final report.
An interesting case history
In the meantime, the Mouvement Laïque provides an interesting case history — both because it represents the most outspoken sections of a school of thought (or thought of school) that until very recently was entirely unheardfrom in Quebec, and because it is a splendid example of the kind of ecstatic soul-searching that is going on in the new enlightenment of French Canada’s “quiet revolution.”
Le Mouvement is not anti-Catholic. (There is indeed at least one strong, if nationalistic, argument for all French Catholics to support “neutral” schools: virtually all non-Catholic immigrants who now arrive in Montreal speaking neither French nor English send their children to Protestant—meaning nearly always English-language—schools, with the result that the children are lost to the French community.) Le Mouvements secretary, in fact, estimates that roughly half its 1,200 members are practising Catholics, including one priest and such influential laymen as the essayist Jean Le Moyne and the psychologist André Lussier.
The other half of the membership consists of about a hundred Frenchspeaking Protestants, forty or fifty Jews, also French-speaking, and agnostics of one degree or another. The president is Dr. Jacques Mackay, a psychiatrist at the Montreal Children's Hospital, and the executive committee is made up of such diverse types as a woman TV journalist, a CBC producer and a criminal lawyer. There is also an advisory committee with such well-known members as the dramatist Marcel Dube and Prof. Marcel Rioux of the University of Montreal.
In numbers and eminence, the membership has come a long way since the fall of 1960, when a group of Montreal mothers circulated a questionnaire to see if they could discover what kind of support "neutral” schools would have. (One of the difficulties facing the Mouvement has been that until very recently, few French Canadians have been very anxious to make it known that they were not practising Catholics.) Nearly a thousand copies of the questionnaire were distributed among trade unions, teachers’ organizations and artists’ groups, where the founding mothers felt sympathy would exist if it existed anywhere. Six hundred people answered, and of them 560 said they would support a movement for "neutral” schools. By the time Le Mouvement Laïque held its founding convention last April, more than 300 were on hand to pay $3 each and argue about
w'hat the new' organization’s precise goals should be.
Last November, the Mouvement convened again and this time much of the discussion centred around a paper that has come to play a vital role in much of the talk of "neutral” schools. The paper’s author was Paul Lacoste, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montreal. The plan he put forward in it has become known as the solution Lacoste. Essentially, this plan calls for the division of the school system on the basis of language rather than religion— there would still be, in other words, two separate systems, but they would be French and English rather than Catholic and Protestant. Further, Lacoste (and of covirse others) has suggested the creation of a ministry of education. Under the minister, who would serve as a link between the systems, would be two advisory committees, one for each language. Under them, in turn, would be a set of subcommittees, each representing a religious, or nonreligious, interest. Lacoste has envisioned four such subcommittees for each language: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and “neutral." The subcommittees would lay down the rules for religious teaching — w hich might include such subjects as history —while the French and English committees would have full and residual authority over what the French call les matières profanes.
One unwieldy solution
On paper, of course, this solution opens up dizzying new horizons in unwieldiness. There is the possibility that in the metropolis of Montreal there would be no fewer than eight different kinds of school, with, for instance. French-speaking Jews trooping from all over the city to a small high school in Outremont. But Lacoste himself says his solution is only a framework and it is quite likely that within that framework some practical solutions can be achieved. French-speaking Jews and Protestants, for example, would likely prove willing in most districts to join forces and schools with the neutrals. The important point about plans like Lay coste’s is that they will allow parents some freedom of choice.
Exactly what variation of this plan Le Mouvement Laïque is going to present to the Parent Commission hasn't yet been decided, nor is the numerical strength from which they’ll present it. A committee has been working on a brief most of the winter and this month a draft of that brief will be presented to the Mouvements third convention in Montreal. After that, the Mouvement plans to start an intense, all-out recruiting drive.
No matter how many people Lc Mouvement Laïque signs up, no one is expecting a complete victory for its cause. Things don’t change that fast in Quebec—even in the “quiet revolution.” “The battle is only beginning,” president Jacques Mackay said not long ago, “but we’ve been pleasantly surprised already that our opposition hasn’t been stronger. We’re convinced that the arguments on our side are so solid that we can’t be kept down forever.” **
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