“Honorary Protes­tants”: The Jewish School Ques­tion in Mon­treal, 1867–1997

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Vic­tor Rabi­novitch, who for eleven years was the pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Civ­i­liza­tion (now the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory) and is an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Queen’s Univer­sity.

by David Fraser Univer­sity of Toronto Press, 529 pages, $85

Are Jewish stu­dents Catholics? Are they Protes­tants? Or what are they? For nearly 150 years, the “Jewish school ques­tion” trou­bled Que­bec’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. How this was man­aged through so­cial, le­gal, and po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mises, within a con­text of some in­tol­er­ance and in­equal­ity, is the cen­tral theme of the fas­ci­nat­ing book “Honorary Protes­tants”.

David Fraser, a Cana­dian-trained law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham, has writ­ten a de­tailed study on the evo­lu­tion of Que­bec’s faith-based schools that were so im­por­tant to the life of Mon­treal’s Jewish community. These ar­range­ments were a test­ing ground for “rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion” and cre­ated an early form of Cana­dian mul­ti­cul­tural pol­icy.

The story be­gins in the 1840s, when

Que­bec (then Canada East) es­tab­lished lo­cal school boards along re­li­gious lines. Catholic ed­u­ca­tion was ef­fec­tively un­der Church con­trol while Protes­tant schools, although more di­verse in their de­nom­i­na­tions, were also faith-led.

The faith-based sys­tem in Que­bec and the other Bri­tish North Amer­i­can colonies was meant to be pro­tected by Sec­tion 93 of the 1867 Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act. This un­der­tak­ing was cen­tral to the Con­fed­er­a­tion pact. Nei­ther of the dom­i­nant Chris­tian re­li­gions would be able im­pose its school­ing and val­ues on the other — it was a great Cana­dian so­lu­tion.

Sub­se­quent ed­u­ca­tion de­ci­sions (no­tably in New Brunswick in 1870, Man­i­toba in 1890, and On­tario in 1912) moved Canada away from Con­fed­er­a­tion’s spirit of com­pro­mise. Judges in­ter­preted the BNA Act in its barest le­gal­ist bones, while politi­cians were hardly con­cerned with lo­cal mi­nori­ties as they re­duced (or elim­i­nated) both Catholic and French-lan­guage pub­lic school­ing.

Que­bec was the ex­cep­tion. Its bal­ance of Protes­tants and Catholics, English speak­ers and French, en­sured that the BNA Act’s pro­tec­tion for mi­nor­ity ed­u­ca­tion would re­main func­tional and ef­fec­tive.

Fraser ex­am­ines the im­pacts in Que­bec af­ter the ar­rival of many Jewish im­mi­grants from Europe. Which de­nom­i­na­tional school sys­tem would ac­cept these new “for­eign” im­mi­grants? How would Jewish prop­erty own­ers be taxed? How would Chris­tian val­ues still be taught within ex­ist­ing schools? And could Jewish stu­dents re­ceive their own cul­tural and re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion within a pub­lic sys­tem?

Early com­pro­mises and half mea­sures re­flected prej­u­dices that were both com­mon and con­tin­u­ing. At dif­fer­ent times, Jews were ad­min­is­tered as if they were Catholics. Then they were Protes­tants. Some­times they were barely tol­er­ated, but at other times they were wel­comed. Hence Fraser’s in­trigu­ing book ti­tle: “Honorary Protes­tants”.

Lo­cal school boards faced po­lit­i­cal, le­gal, and moral chal­lenges. There were con­flicts about how to re­spond to Jewish community lead­ers who wanted civic ed­u­ca­tion with a strong sense of loy­alty to Bri­tish-style in­sti­tu­tions. There were con­flicts, as well, be­tween dif­fer­ent view­points and con­gre­ga­tions within the Jewish community.

Chris­tian lead­ers — some­times Catholics but mainly Protes­tants — sup­ported their own faiths but also cre­ated ac­com­mo­da­tions that went beyond the pro­vi­sions of Canada’s and Que­bec’s laws. These com­pro­mises were not per­fect, but they worked and were mod­i­fied over time. In Fraser’s schol­arly words, “so­lu­tions to these com­pet­ing rights claims of­ten ex­ceeded or went out­side the strict pa­ram­e­ter of pos­i­tive le­gal­ity.”

This very thor­ough study con­cludes with the 1997 con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that re­placed Que­bec’s de­nom­i­na­tional boards with a lan­guage-based ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

Fraser’s un­der­ly­ing the­sis is that tenac­ity and com­pro­mise, as much as le­gal for­mu­las and court judg­ments, are es­sen­tial

for pub­lic poli­cies pro­mot­ing tol­er­ance.

Read­ing his book, I re­mem­bered my own years in a Mon­treal Protes­tant school where, with thou­sands of other Jews, I re­cited the Lord’s Prayer, read from the Bi­ble, but also re­ceived time off for our re­li­gious hol­i­days. Que­bec’s style of prag­matic ac­com­mo­da­tion, had it pre­vailed his­tor­i­cally in Man­i­toba, New Brunswick, and On­tario, could have led those prov­inces to avoid dam­ag­ing in­jus­tices to French-lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion — and con­se­quent dif­fi­cul­ties for this coun­try.

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