When France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, learned that a francophone Ontario school board had held a book-burning ceremony involving titles banned because of their negative portrayal of Indigenous people, he contacted his Quebec counterpart to commiserate.
Mr. Blanquer, who has been on a mission to turn back the tide of “cancel culture” on French university campuses, was incredulous at the news – which made the pages of the prestigious Paris-based Le Monde – of the Providence school board’s “flame purification” ceremony.
Included among the books incinerated during the ceremony – held in 2019, but which only came to light last month in a Radio-Canada report – were titles from the cartoon collections Tintin, Lucky Luke and Asterix, beloved by generations of young francophones on both sides of the Atlantic.
The result of Mr. Blanquer’s commiserating with Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge was a joint op-ed, published last week in Quebec and France, denouncing the “pernicious influence of a culture of intolerance and erasure” embodied by the book-burning.
“We have a duty to prepare our youth to exercise active, respectful and enlightened citizenship. A citizenship that allows for debate, the opinions of others, the confrontation of ideas and the questioning of all our beliefs,” Mr. Blanquer and Mr. Roberge wrote. “That is why we affirm with force and conviction that public schools, the first line of defence against ignorance and darkness, must be the preferred location for the construction of a common civic project.”
The op-ed was just Mr. Roberge’s opening salvo in his own crusade against wokeism in Quebec public schools. Two days later, the Coalition Avenir Québec minister announced his government would introduce a new “Quebec culture and citizenship” (QCC) course to replace the “ethics and religious culture” (ERC) curriculum now taught in public schools.
The current ERC course was adopted by former premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government in 2008, a decade after Quebec replaced its Catholic and Protestant school boards with linguistic ones. The ERC, which replaced the catechism courses that had long been taught in French Catholic schools, aimed to familiarize primary and secondary school students with the panoply of religions practised in Quebec. But critics have long argued that the course is an affront to modern Quebec’s secularist values.
That is an exaggeration. Even the children of non-believers should understand the influence of religion in the lives of most people, and the role the Catholic faith played in shaping modern Quebec. But the anti-clericalism espoused by francophone intellectuals since the Quiet Revolution has hardened attitudes toward the separation of church and state in Quebec.
The Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), an organization dedicated to the “total secularization of the state and public institutions in Quebec,” called the abolition of the ERC course “a breath of fresh air.” The ERC, the MLQ said, has been “an aberration and a disaster on the social level.”
Given its populist leanings, the CAQ government to which Mr. Roberge belongs is not particularly popular in Quebec intellectual circles. But Quebec nationalists and intellectuals have found common ground when it comes to secularism.
Both support Bill 21, though for different reasons. Nationalists see the law that prohibits some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols as an assertion of Quebeckers’ distinct identity in the face of the multicultural ethos that prevails elsewhere in Canada. Intellectuals see it as protection against the incursion of religion in the public square, which they argue should be a faith-free zone.
The CAQ government’s move to replace the ERC with a new Quebec culture and citizenship course is similarly welcomed by nationalists as a blow to multiculturalism and an affirmation of Quebec’s dominant francophone identity. In a video promoting the new curriculum, Premier François Legault says the new course will lead to “a prouder Quebec.”
Mr. Legault’s re-election in 2022 is about as close as you can get to a sure thing in Canadian politics. And his plan to push ahead with the new course will certainly not hurt his chances.
Still, there is something deeply disturbing about the CAQ’s exploitation of Quebeckers’ cultural insecurity for political gain. It is one thing to express concern about the pernicious effects of cancel culture on democratic debate or the excesses of a multiculturalism that denies the existence of a core national identity. But it is quite another to depict critics of Bill 21 and the new citizenship course as an existential threat to the survival of the Quebec way of life, as Mr. Legault and his ministers do.
It almost makes you wonder whether Mr. Roberge even read his own op-ed.
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