• The Low Down

Private schools ‘above the law’

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette is 34 years old, born in 1987, five years after the signing of the Canadian Constitution with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, containing the famous Section 23, known as the Canada Clause.


Although he has studied constitutional law, Jolin-Barrette can be forgiven for not being familiar with the political roller-coaster ride that led to the creation of the fundamental law of the land, how we ended up with that pesky Section 23 and that useful notwithstanding clause.


Let us turn to the current Quebec minister of justice and his reaction to the recent Quebec Superior Court ruling by Justice Marc-André Blanchard on a charter challenge to Bill 21, the ban on religious symbols worn by public figures in a position of trust.

In sum, Blanchard upheld virtually all the provisions of Bill 21, but exempted English school boards in Quebec from its application under Section 23’s protection of minority language education rights.


At a press conference called after the ruling, Jolin-Barrette said in reply to a question from English media: “There’s only one state here in Quebec. There’s only one law that applies for everybody for the same thing. And that’s why we are going on appeal on that. Section 23 of the constitutional law of 1982 is about linguistic rights and not about secularism or laicity of the state.”


While Jolin-Barrette is targeting as fugitives from Bill 21 the handful of teachers and administrators in the English public school system who may wear veils, crucifixes, turbans, or kippahs, there is another large and significant slice of Quebec’s educational community that gets a pass from the law, having nothing to do with Section 23.


Some 122,000 students, about the population of Sherbrooke, are enrolled in 193 private schools in Quebec, according to the Écoles privées du Québec website. By contrast, about 100,000 students attend 340 English public schools under the seven boards of the Quebec English School Boards Association.


In multiethnic Montreal, more than one-third of secondary school students attend private schools; among anglophone students, it’s 40 per cent. Quebec has the largest overall private school attendance rate of all the provinces, about 17 per cent at the secondary level.


Parents may have many reasons to pony up the often pricey tuition for private schools, but it’s safe to assume a significant motivation is religious education, be it Catholic, Muslim or Jewish. Chances are you’d find the odd religious accoutrement within the classrooms of these schools.

Bill 21 applies only to publicly funded schools, so Quebec’s extensive collection of private schools, the majority of whose costs are 60 per cent subsidized by taxpayers, are “above the law,” to borrow from the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s terminology used to denounce the Blanchard ruling.


One suspects the Legault government is not as eager to engage in a fight with private school parents over religious symbols as it is to pursue the English public school community. Odds are many of the MNAs in the CAQ caucus – maybe even some ministers – went to one of these private schools.


One Quebec, but more than one school system. It’s in the Constitution.


Peter Black’s column first appeared in the Québec Chronicle as part of the Local Journalism Initiative. Reprinted with permission.