MA Education and Society, McGill University
Secularism, when considered in relation to education, seems to be one of those terms that means completely different things depending on who you are talking to. To some, it represents the idea that schools can be open places, neither favouring nor disregarding any one specific faith. To others, it is equated with atheism or even represents a threat to all religion, not just in public spaces, but personally. Again, to others, it is the absolute removal of all spiritual elements from learning and schools. Many academics have worked to explore this concept in relation to the modern, western world but in spite of the growing library of academic writing and research on secularism, the concept itself remains elusive to many Canadian teachers. Speaking from experience as a substitute teacher in several public schools in suburban Montreal and a student teacher in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I can attest to a wide variety of interpretations and understandings of secularism. In Quebec, public schools are considered to be secular spaces where students’ guaranteed rights to freedom of religion are respected.
No one religion is meant to be privileged above any others, but it is still considered important that students are exposed to the different tenants of various world religions and spiritual perspectives. Religion is not to be removed from the curriculum, but explored from a neutral stance. The document that governs (for lack of a better word) a teacher’s approach to religion and spirituality in the school is the ERC (Ethics and Religious Cultures) program, which expects teachers to “be discreet and respectful, and to not promote their own beliefs and points of view.” The three competencies of this program are that students reflect on ethical questions, demonstrate an understanding of the phenomenon of religion, and engage in dialogue. Teachers are expected to step away from their own religious perspectives when teaching any subject area, but religion is not to be absent from schools in Quebec. It is to be explored and reflected upon.
Even with our professional obligations towards the ERC program, many of the teachers that I have spoken with seem to skip over the second competency and focus primarily on the first and third in the small bloc devoted to ERC each week. In some cases this is an act of rebellion from a teacher of the old guard, still clinging, however weakly, to the catholic or protestant school system that they grew up and were trained in. For the most part, however, I do not believe this to be the reason why religious cultures are ignored. One of the justifications for the religious cultures aspect being often left out is that there is a concern for misrepresentation. Teachers are afraid to discuss something like religion, particularly a religion that is not their own, for fear that they will misinform their students, and many opt to avoid the topic altogether rather than risk making a mistake. Another reason for its omission is that religion might seem to come with the potential for controversy. I do not know if this is related to schools being secular spaces, coupled with a misunderstanding that secularism = no religion, but it’s very possible that this idea is looming over the hesitation. In some cases, the degree to which religious cultures are explored is directly related to the diversity of the school population. In a homogeneous community, some teachers are less likely to explore different religious cultures simply because it seems less relevant to their student population.
Having a document that outlines expectations towards religion in relation to secular schools puts Quebec a step above many other provinces, where schools are secular in that religion is absent from the curriculum or even avoided outside of, in some cases, an optional world religions course. Much of the confusion over secularism in Quebec schools might come from the lack of clarity towards it in other provincial curriculums, and a simple lack of exploration on behalf of the teacher, but in spite of the existence of a document that emphasizes the understanding of religion without privileging it, there is a struggle to foster such an environment in many Quebec schools.