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Testament to a creed of tolerance

A Meeting of the People: school boards and Protestant communities in Quebec, 1801-1998

By Roderick MacLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen

McGill-Queen's University PressCombined Academic Publishers pound;23.95.

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The history of education in the 19th and early 20th century in English-speaking countries is largely a history of assimilation - in the United States and Canada, of tens of millions of non English-speaking immigrants; in Ireland, through the supposedly neutral but covertly sectarian National Reader series - to a dominant Anglo-Protestant ethos.

The schools Roderick MacLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen write about in A Meeting of the People, which will be of interest to historians of education, were part of this mission. But in contrast to the standard story, they indicate a remarkable sensitivity to what today we call "multiculturalism", born of the community control exercised by liberal Protestants living far from the big centres of Montreal and Quebec City.

Quebec's Anglican elite would have liked to control the provision of education via authorised schools; MacLeod and Poutanen show how settlement patterns in Quebec province militated against such ecclesiastical control.

As early as 1784, Loyalists who settled in New Carlisle on Quebec's Gaspe peninsula were supporting a teacher whose classes of as many as 60 students were divided equally between boys and girls.

Six years later, the Scots, who settled in Terrebone outside Montreal, set up a publicly funded village school. In 1794, Protestants in Montreal and Quebec City successfully petitioned the colonial governments to fund schools separately from the Anglicans'. By 1832, Protestants across Quebec had established 1,200 elementary schools.

Even more surprising than these numbers is the tradition of tolerance in the ethos of the majority of Quebec's Protestant schools. In 1810, a school founded by Presbyterians in Lachine, outside Montreal, welcomed local French Catholics, whose priest threatened to deny them the sacraments because of the school they attended. In 1842 (four years before Horace Mann wrote the report that led to the development of America's secular public school system), the little town of Hemmingford set up a common school fund "designed for the encouragement of education... without distinction of creed or party".

MacLeod and Poutanen show how this tradition of tolerance came under strain from the late 1840s, when Quebec's Catholic French majority, the leaders of which were increasingly ultramontane, began to assert their power in Montreal and Quebec's governments. By 1867, the split was entrenched in the Canadian Constitution, which established separate Protestant and Catholic school boards in both Montreal and Quebec City.

The book's seventh chapter, "Honorary Protestants: Jewish pupils and Protestant boards", might suggest that MacLeod and Poutanen are about to tell a story of assimilation and cultural insensitivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. No doubt, some Jews objected in 1869 when they were classified as Protestants for taxation purposes, but the community got the board to employ a Hebrew teacher.

In the 1890s, as the number of poor Jews rose in central Montreal, the Protestant board established a school for disadvantaged Jewish children.

Nor was Montreal alone. Before the First World War, the non-denominational (but largely Protestant) board in the small city of Sherbrooke hired a Hebrew teacher and paid for religiouscultural classes held on Sundays; in 1948, the same board provided classes, taught by a rabbi, for Jewish students.

There were, of course, tensions. In 1914, MacLeod and Poutanen note, Jewish students walked out of school after a Jewish girl was insulted by a teacher; when they returned, the board agreed to hire 70 new Jewish teachers. In 1946, Protestant ministers in the wealthy Montreal suburb of Outremont complained that "the unchristian views of the Hebrews tended to exercise an unhealthy influence on Protestant children"; later "the Quebec Federation of Home and School Associations (the province's umbrella group for Protestant education), the Canadian Legion and the province's Anglican synod denounced the Outremont ministers".

A Meeting of the People is not a study of the methodology. Still, MacLeod and Poutanen make an important point about what counts as evidence.

Inspectors' reports - the stuff of most histories of education - present, they show, a one-sided, city-based (and thus efficiency-based) view of education that "characterises parents in rural communities as apathetic about their children's education, the suitability of school houses and the importance of regular classroom attendance".

The authors' careful study of local records suggests the reverse. Indeed, they find that the minutes of urban school boards, while more professional, are "nearly silent on the subject of parents' feelings regarding the quality of teaching, the discipline of children, and the curriculum" - that is, of the lived experience of tens of thousands of students.

Nathan M Greenfield teaches at Algonquin College, Ottawa, Canada

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