Québec Passes New Education Law: “You can’t do just anything, but we will respect your rights.”

Holy book with necklace.

On November 9th, 2017, Québec’s National Assembly passed Bill 144, An Act to amend the Education Act and other legislative provisions concerning mainly free educational services and compulsory school attendance.

The Act is likely part of the provincial government’s response to recent controversy over particular private Hasidic Jewish schools in the greater Montréal area that operate without recognition from Québec’s Ministry of Education and have been accused of failing to follow the province’s educational standards. The Act also seeks to address the three to eight thousand children in Québec that are home-schooled without the knowledge of the school system or government.

The Act, which facilitates the Ministry’s ability to control “underground” schools and track home-schooled children, raises a number of different concerns including freedom of religion, privacy, and access to quality education.

Education Minister Sébastien Proulx said that the legislation empowers ministry officials to enter a suspected illegal school and to fine those running it. The law will also permit the Education Ministry to identify home-schooled children by requiring that their parents report to their local school board with an education plan for approval by the Education Ministry. The Act allows the Education Ministry to use the records of RAMQ, the operator of Québec’s public healthcare system, to identify home-schooled students and to cross-reference health records with their own education records. It is in this respect that privacy rights are potentially engaged: should education officials be reaching into children’s health-care records? The Education Minister says that the new law accords with Québec’s privacy laws.

Since many “underground” schools as well as parents who home-school their children are motivated by religion and cultural preservation, minority rights and freedom of religion are engaged by the debate of which this new law is a part. Under the Québec Charter, parents have the right to give their children a religious and moral education in keeping with their convictions, with proper regard for their children’s rights and interests (art. 41). Furthermore, parents have the right to choose private educational establishments for their children, provided such establishments comply with the standards prescribed by law (art. 42). In the 2015 Loyola High School v. Québec, the Supreme Court of Canada rule that Québec infringed the religious freedom of a catholic high school in Montréal by requiring it to teach a world religion and culture course from a neutral perspective. Clearly, it is possible for the provincial government to go too far in prescribing the internal goings-on of religious schools.

On the other side of the debate are those advocating for increasing government involvement in the affairs of religious schools. In fall 2018 Québec expects the result of a legal battle between the Québec government and two former Hasidic jews, who claim that the province ignored its legal obligation of ensuring that all children receive a proper education. Some groups argue that Bill 144 doesn’t go far enough in ensuring this goal is reached.

An Act to amend the Education Act and other legislative provisions concerning mainly free educational services and compulsory school attendance comes into force this summer.

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.