Will the government eventually use its Charter of Values to suppress freedom of conscience and religion among health care workers?
It appears from Quebec government policy documents describing its proposed Charter of Values (the precise language of which has yet to be released) that it considers physicians and other health care workers to be state functionaries because they are engaged in the delivery of "public" health care. As state functionaries, they will be forbidden to wear noticeable religious symbols or clothing, unless local authorities exempt them from this restriction.
However, no exemptions will be allowed to parts of the Charter that will impose secularism and restrict accommodation of religious beliefs. These are central government policies that are to be enacted through the Charter of Values and related legislation. This gives rise to an important question.
Will the government of Quebec – sooner or later – use its Charter of Values to suppress freedom of conscience and religion among health care workers?
An answer to the question is suggested by a review of the Quebec government’s continuing efforts to establish state hegemony in the moral and ethical education of children.
Abolition of denominational education in Quebec
When Canada was established in 1867, the BNA Act (now the Constitution Act of 1867) guaranteed that Quebeckers living outside Quebec City or Montreal were entitled to denominational schools if they were a Catholic or Protestant religious minority, or if they lived in Montreal or Quebec City and were Catholic or Protestant. Most schools outside Montreal and Quebec were operated as Catholic schools, not as a matter of law, but because that reflected the majority. The Constitution Act of 1982 continued the arrangement.
Beginning in 1988, the Quebec government moved to abolish denominational school boards and replaced them with linguistic boards (Bill 107). Schools themselves could, under the new system, continue to identify themselves as Protestant or Catholic, and access to denominational education continued to be guaranteed. Implementation was delayed until after 1993, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the arrangements – including the continued provision of denominational schooling – were not unconstitutional.
Bill 109 (June 19, 1997) established procedures for electing linguistic boards, but opposition from parents who wanted to ensure the continued protection of denominational schooling was significant. Thus, the government of Quebec asked the federal government to abolish constitutional safeguards that protected denominational education in the province. The Liberal government’s point man for the project, Stéphane Dion, delivered the amendment before the end of the year. Dion and Liberal Senator Lucie Pepin offered assurances that denominational education would continue to be protected by existing provincial law.
Three years later, Quebec abolished Catholic and Protestant schools (Bill 118, 14 June, 2000). However, private denominational schools were unaffected, and parents could ask state schools to provide classes on general morality for their children, or Catholic or Protestant religious instruction. The overwhelming majority of parents continued to ask for religious instruction.
The next moves came in 2005 with the passage of Bill 95. Having earlier obtained the abolition of constitutional protection for denominational education, the Quebec government claimed that it was unconstitutional to offer Catholic and Protestant religious instruction in state schools.
Establishing state sovereignty
The new law prohibited all religious teaching in the state school system, something not unusual in Western democracies. However, it also required all schools – including private denominational schools to teach the state’s newly minted Ethics and Religious Culture course to all students in all grades (except one secondary school year). All home-schooling families were also subject to the law. The Minister of Education stated that no students would be exempted from the course.