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'Did the government violate its own law?': Lawyer for ex-Hasidic couple says Quebec should have done more

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2020-02-10 Benjamin Shingler
a couple of people posing for the camera: Yohanan Lowen, right, and his wife, Shifra, are taking the Quebec government to court. They are seen here outside their Montreal apartment in 2017. © Benjamin Shingler/CBC Yohanan Lowen, right, and his wife, Shifra, are taking the Quebec government to court. They are seen here outside their Montreal apartment in 2017.

The Quebec government didn't do enough to enforce its own law ensuring schools follow the provincial curriculum, a lawyer for two ex-Hasidic Jews argued in his opening statement Monday.

Bruce Johnston, who represents Yohanan and Shifra Lowen, said the Education Ministry should have done more to regulate religious schools in Tash, a Hasidic community about 30 kilometres north of Montreal.

Johnston said the schooling for boys was particularly limited, and when Yohanan graduated, he was unable to speak French and could only speak limited English.

"We're not saying these people are ill-intentioned, but whatever strategy they had was a failure," he told the court, before putting this question to the judge: "By tolerating illegal schools, did the government violate its own law?"

Johnston told Quebec Superior Court Justice André Wery his clients don't want money.

They're seeking a declaratory judgment that would force the province to take steps to ensure children who attend private religious schools are taught the provincial curriculum.

He said the evidence will show that, upon graduation, the "vast majority" of boys in Tash were not ready for the world — and could not, for example, read a restaurant menu or count out change when paying.

The province's attorney general and religious schools in Tash are named in the lawsuit. 

David Bannon, a lawyer representing the schools, argued in his own opening statement that much has changed in Tash in the two decades since Yohanan, now 42, and Shifra, 41, attended school in the community. The couple are married and the parents of several children.

He said the "arrangement works" between school boards, parents and the religious schools.

Éric Cantin, a lawyer for the attorney general's office, also acknowledged there were problems in the past but said the situation has since improved. 

In 2016, under the previous Liberal government, the province reached a compromise with several schools, whereby religion is taught at school and the provincial curriculum taught at home under the supervision of the local school board.

Those rules were tightened again under the Coalition Avenir Québec government to ensure students learn a subject in the same year as their peers in public school and take part in mandated provincial exams.

Religion the focus for boys, witness says

Marie-Josée Bernier, a youth protection officer who assessed schools in the community, was the first person to testify. 

As a result of several visits to the community in 2014 and 2015, she said, it was determined boys there were taught "little to nothing" from the provincial curriculum, while the girls received a balance between a religious and "secular education" — including learning math, social sciences and English.

The boys were, in general, found to "have a strong ability to learn," she testified, but their secular education was sorely lacking. 

She said about 280 of the 320 boys who were assessed were flagged for further monitoring, given their poor level of English and math skills. 

By 2017, she said, the situation had improved, thanks to collaboration between parents and the local English school board, Sir Wilfred Laurier.

At that point, fewer than 100 boys were flagged for further monitoring.

The trial is expected to last two weeks and will include testimony from members of the community, representatives from the Education Ministry and the plaintiffs themselves.

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