Religious daycare: Pick your cultural battles

By Barbara Kay on April 23, 2010

Quebec is the most militantly secular of all Canada’s provinces. Its intellectuals and cultural elites are resolutely committed to the ideal of a lay society. References to the Church in the media positively bristle with thinly-sheathed scorn. Yet the Quebec government is inconsistent when it comes to religious instruction in publicly funded institutions. 

On the one hand, the state is very generous in funding the secular portions of religious day schools – a generosity one does not see in other provinces – and just recently, for example, bent over backwards to accommodate six private Hasidic Jewish schools’ demand for an extra day a week of religious schooling. 

On the other hand, it recently decreed religious education will no longer be tolerated in government-subsidized daycares. Annie Turcot, spokeswoman for a coalition of publicly funded daycares on the island of Montreal, justified the measure as an aid to immigrants’ acculturation: “The mission of (early-childhood education centres) is really to help families integrate into Quebec culture.”

On its face, this sounds like a plausible and worthy objective. Who can object to children “integrating” into Quebec culture? But in fact, this lofty ideal can’t possibly gain purchase within the constraints of the daycare reality.

Exactly how much integration can be accomplished in the first five years of a child’s life? Do you remember anything before the age of five? 

Even if he could remember, until the child is more developed, religious education can’t be communicated, except in such broad and crude strokes. All daycare activity up to that point is devoted to physical caretaking and socialization. Whether a child is drawing a Christmas tree, a stick man or a house, it’s all about play and learning hand-eye coordination, not theological concepts.

There is approximately one year – from the age of four on – in which a day school can make any educational impact on a child. But in any case, whatever is communicated conceptually during that year – and by conceptually we’re talking about very simple ideas at that age –  won’t amount to a hill of beans beside what the child is learning at home and what he is absorbing from his social environment.

The whole question of religious education in daycare only arose because an internal government audit revealed that about 20 state-funded daycares were including religious instruction in their programs. It turned out the Ministry for Families granted a permit a few years ago to an Islamic association to open an 80-place centre in Laval, whose declared mandate was to “spread Islamic education among Muslims and non-Muslims.”

“Non-Muslims?” Get real. 

What is the cultural composition of those 20 daycares anyway? Likely children from the religion these centres promote. These are children who are already absorbing their parents’ religious values by osmosis, a process reinforced by their constant association with children from like-minded households. They are already being “educated” – it is now a question of whether they will marinate in their cultural heritage for up to 16 hours a day.

Say these centres were told they can’t teach religion. Does anyone seriously think people who got into the daycare business for cultural reasons will not find a way around such a prohibition?

How exactly would you monitor these centres? If, just before Passover, a member of the newly-formed “religious instruction police” were to observe a teacher in a Jewish daycare overseeing a matzo-baking class, is that religious instruction or a cooking class? What about painting Easter eggs? Art class or religious instruction? What about story books about a prophet called Mohammed? Literary-building skills or religious instruction?

You would think that the Quebec government has all it can handle at the moment with Bill 94. The banning of the niqab in public institutions was a very popular and, in my opinion, courageous act. The niqab is an objective reality. Everyone knows what it looks like and many feel it’s a socially aggressive challenge to Quebec’s cultural values. Banning the niqab is straightforward.

Religious education in daycare, on the other hand, is difficult to define with precision, has a negligible effect on society and is impossible to enforce. Quebec should pick its cultural battles with more care. 


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