When the province of Quebec introduced a daycare system offering subsidized spaces at only $5 a day, spots filled and families celebrated. Even though the price rose to $7 a few years, there were no complaints.
Many Montreal Jewish day schools, such as the Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools (JPPS) and Beth Rivkah Academy, introduced these daycares and made no secret of the fact that pre-kindergarten students would be getting an early start on their parochial education. That really was never an issue until last week when the Quebec government announced it is banning religious instruction in provincially funded daycare centres.
The opposition Parti Quebecois reasoned that while Quebec has made its public- school system non-denominational, religion appeared to be slipping back through the public daycare system. Quebec Family Minister Tony Tomassi was under fire from the PQ last week. He said that his department has launched an investigation and found that there might be problems in about 20 daycare centres. Ultra-orthodox Jewish and Islamic operators of subsidized daycares have been offering instruction in their respective religions for years.
"From now on, religious instruction will no longer be accepted in the daycare network subsidized by the Family Department," Tomassi said in Quebec City.
Last Thursday the PQ forced a vote on the issue in the National Assembly and the ban on religion passed unanimously, which meant that the Jewish MNA for D’Arcy McGee, Lawrence Bergman, voted along party lines for a motion which is not popular among his constituents.
B’nai Brith Canada-Quebec Region expressed concern with the government’s decision and has been consulting with other faith groups and daycare centres to ascertain what the next step should be following this announcement.
Allan Adel, national chair of the League for Human Rights, says that cutting funding to religious daycares would discriminate against people who practice a faith, violating the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religion.
Adel said that banning religion in daycares would create significant confusion between religion and cultural traditions. An example being used is the lighting of the Chanukah menorah and whether that would be allowed. Similarly, for a Christian daycare, the singing of Christmas carols.
Rabbi Reuben J. Poupko of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron in Côte Saint-Luc was not holding back his comments. “There remains a bizarre obsession on the part of the Quebec media with Jewish schools,” he remarked. “That being said, when we accept government financial support for institutions which we perceive as being clearly religious in nature then we are treading on dangerous ground. However, for anyone to think that little children in daycare are involved in deep and profound theological discussions in class makes no sense.”
On the JPPS website, a section devoted to their $7 a day daycare, called the Children’s Centre of JPPS (pictured above), states that the school is committed to the highest standard of education, training students to be leaders in embracing the world and its opportunities from the distinctive perspective of informed and inspired Jewish identity.
“Two of my children went there and it provided them with a solid basis of a Jewish education prior to them entering the mainstream JPPS system,” one parent told the Jewish Tribune. “That is why we chose it.”
The Beth Rivkah website stated that all the "daily activities are driven by the spirit of Torah and the Jewish tradition." That message was no longer visible hours after the Tomassi announcement, replaced by a note that said under construction.
Annie Turcot, a spokesperson for a coalition of publicly funded daycares on the island of Montreal actually welcomed the decision. "The mission of (early-childhood education centres) is really to help families integrate into Quebec culture," she said.
As Adel notes, if the government needs to define exactly what the banning of religion in daycares means. “They’ll have to prescribe some regulations,” he said. “It should not be up to a clerk to decide that on a whim.”
Added Rabbi Poupko: “If the government thinks it can draw a clear line between culture and religion, I believe they are mistaken.”
Father John Walsh of St. John Brébeuf Parish in Montreal feels the time has come for the Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Catholic communities to get together. “The topic would be religion in the public domain,” said Father Walsh.
According to Father Walsh, “there is no such thing as a subsidized Christian daycare centre in Montreal.” There are some private daycares operated by the Catholic community, he says, but even they do not teach religion.