A Meeting of the People: School Boards and Protestant Communities in Quebec, 1801-1998 – MacLEOD; POUTANEN (CSS)

MacLEOD, Roderick; POUTANEN, Mary Anne Poutanen. A Meeting of the People: School Boards and Protestant Communities in Quebec, 1801-1998. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2004. 507p. Resenha de: GLASSFORD, Larry. Canadian Social Studies, v.41, n.1, p., 2008.

In 1998 a major reform measure, Bill 180, took effect in the province of Quebec, reorganizing its school system from a religious to a linguistic basis. Instead of dual systems based on Catholic and Protestant, the new arrangement would feature a division based on French and English. So fundamental was the switch that it required, in addition to passage of the bill in Quebecs National Assembly, the approval of a constitutional amendment by the Canadian Parliament. Both legislatures endorsed the measure on a bipartisan basis by healthy margins, but one significant interest group did not form part of the supportive consensus. The Quebec Association of Protestant School Boards, reluctant to surrender an historic constitutional guarantee of minority school rights, launched a court challenge against the new law. Though ultimately unsuccessful, it made the point that not everyone with a stake in the issue accepted the modernist assumption that organizing (and dividing) Quebecs schools along religious lines had become outdated.

What was the essence of the Quebec Protestant school system? This is the fundamental question addressed by the authors in their scholarly treatment of developments over the past two centuries. They are at pains to emphasize that it was more than a thinly disguised vehicle to perpetuate narrowly religious biases arising out of Anglican and Calvinist worldviews. They do point out that Quebecs Protestant school system owed much to the local school governance traditions of New England, and the Scottish emphasis on universal literacy, given the predominance of early settlers from these two geographic areas in the anglophone community. However, although most of the provinces francophones were Roman Catholic, and the largest number of anglophones were Protestant, the emergence in the 19th century of a sizeable English-speaking community of Irish Catholics prevented any complete identification of language with religion. Furthermore, the existence of French Protestants of Huguenot and Swiss ancestry, though less numerous, completed the picture of complexity in the provinces school system. Thus, in the authors view, the fundamental essence of Protestant education in Quebec was a belief in public, non-sectarian and liberal education, as opposed to the conservative, parish-oriented and religiously-based instruction favoured in the opposing Catholic school system.

A parallel theme of great importance to MacLeod and Poutanen is the close identification by scattered rural communities of Protestants with their local schools. Whereas in sections of Montreal and its suburbs, anglophone Protestants often formed the majority in their districts, for Protestants in the rest of the province, minority existence was a fact of life, even in the Eastern Townships by the turn of the 20th century. The elementary school, with its elected board, represented an important community focal point. Often these schools owed their existence to local initiative, since the first schools to be established, in most parts of the province, were French and Catholic. Keeping them up and running through hard times, rural depopulation and Protestant out-migration was an ongoing struggle. It was with mixed feelings that many Protestant communities acquiesced in the loss of their local schoolhouse to larger consolidated schools by the mid 20th century. The gains in educational quality, as measured by modern facilities and single grade classrooms, could not disguise the very real loss of community associated with school centralization. Protestant parents opted for greater opportunity for their children arising from larger modernized schools, but in so doing they removed one of the institutional props supporting their minority communities. It was not an unmixed blessing.

One of the many virtues of this book is that the authors are aware of the main currents of thought in Canadian educational history, and self-consciously position their own interpretation within the mix of approaches. They are aware of the main tenets of the social control model, but are not persuaded that it offers the best set of tools for their work. While others have written histories of school systems from a metropolitan perspective, their own bias is in favour of the local school districts. In part, this is owing to their main sources of new information about Quebec schooling: namely, the carefully preserved records of Protestant school boards from across the province. The legislated termination of Protestant schools in 1998 presented an opportunity to tell a story with an obvious end point, based on two centuries of accumulated sources. 1801 was chosen as the starting point, because it marked the creation of the first public school board in Quebec, the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning. With a wealth of local school records at their disposal, MacLeod and Poutanen find that the characterization of parents and boards as tending to oppose needed reforms and progressive initiatives is well wide of the mark. What previous historians under emphasized, with their reliance on reports by Montreal-based school inspectors and other elite figures, were the very real hardships faced by local boards in providing adequate facilities and competitive teacher salaries, in the face of rural poverty and sparse populations. Far from downgrading the importance of education, parents and boards were proud of their schools and the achievements of their students, and continually sacrificed time and scarce funds to keep the schoolhouses open.

Only in the final chapters do the authors lose some of their even-handedness, as they confront the apparent hostility of francophone Quebec nationalism toward a school system which had drawn Jews, Greek Orthodox and other non-Protestant immigrant groups into its orbit. It is evident that MacLeod and Poutanen regard the apparent victory for liberalism of a school system based on languages rather than religions as a pyrrhic one. The growth of a massive educational bureaucracy in Quebec City, coupled with the loss of constitutional protection for a separate, yet publicly-funded, school system, has placed anglophone minority schools at the mercy of the francophone majority. While this book celebrates two centuries of achievement, it faces the future with obvious trepidation.

Along the way, the reader is treated to nearly 100 period photographs, 13 statistical tables, and 24 maps. Moving anecdotes of specific communities and individuals are skilfully blended with a penetrating overview that includes even the school experiences of the Cree and Inuit peoples in northern Quebec. The tone is authoritative, and deservedly so. If you can find a better treatment of Protestant schools in Quebec, buy it.

Larry A. Glassford – University of Windsor. Windsor, Ontario.

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