Multiculturalism is a Canadian reality with boundaries that carry legal clout.
In a precedent-setting case, the Supreme Court of Canada on Friday rejected a challenge by two parents claiming their religious rights were violated by a Quebec ethics-and-religion class that teaches students about different faiths, cultures and traditions. The parents argued that the class was teaching their child religions that violated their beliefs.
But the Supreme Court ruled that Canadians must embrace multiculturalism and respect the beliefs of others.
It ruled that tolerance in Canada is a two-way street. While the nation respects the rights of minority groups, traditional customs and religious beliefs, tolerance must be applied equally.
The ruling asks Canadians to understand the unusual nature of this country, and the expectations of multiculturalism that come with the package.
A family in Quebec took offence to a multi-denominational class taught by a Drummondville, Que., school. The parents launched a court action claiming their child was being “force fed” religious beliefs contrary to their beliefs. The challenge was rejected by the lower courts, eventually ending up in the high court, where legal precedence is determined.
The Quebec government introduced the course in 2008, saying it was a way of fostering harmonious relations among students of different backgrounds, and introducing them to worldwide religious practices and traditions. It’s not meant to suggest one way of life is better than another. It’s strictly for educational purposes — no different than a history class examining the customs and beliefs of past societies. Nor is it any different from courses teaching evolution — a topic that goes against the grain of some religious beliefs.
Intolerance is often born through ignorance, passed on from generation to generation. Education is the key to breaking that cycle. We must expose young minds, in a non-biased way, to customs and beliefs that are practised around the world. The Quebec course, which replaces the Protestant and Catholic religion courses, takes a step in the right direction by offering an impartial view of different cultures that are part of modern Canadian society.
Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp said the high court saw the course as a vehicle for co-existence and tolerance, rather than an indoctrination of students.
Calling multiculturalism a reality of modern Canada, Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps wrote: “Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society.”
Deschamps further wrote: “The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.”
The mother who objected to the course said it “trivializes” faith by “treating students to a religious buffet.” She further called the court’s decision “dangerous.”
In fact, the class is teaching about religious practices, the same as others classes teach children about science, math or literature.
Giving an overview is hardly trivializing; it can be the basis for more thorough study in the future, as students make choices and the curriculum becomes more specific.
The mother, identified only be her initials, further stated that “There’s a time for everything and I think that teaching about other religions should be done a little later, when the kids are a little older.” The program is taught from Grade 1 through Grade 11.
So when are you old enough to learn tolerance? Surely such positive messages should be delivered as soon as possible to eager young minds, before they have entrenched beliefs — and before a lack of education and perspective on the world breeds intolerance and hatred.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.