An Acadian Dilemma
By Sue and Hugo Larsson
Acadians today are the descendants of the first French settlers in
Canada who settled not in Quebec but in what are now known as the
provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, as
well as part of the American state of Maine. When Britain took the
region away from the French for the last time, the British were
suspicious of the Acadians. Although they promised full neutrality, the
British feared they would be sympathetic to an attack by the French.
So, starting about 1755, Acadians were deported to other parts of the
world and prohibited from returning. Some wound up in Louisiana and
became the Cajuns.
Not all Acadians were deported, though. Others returned later. As a
result, there is still an Acadian presence today, with its own flag,
national anthem and a national though unofficial holiday, August 15
(Assumption Day in the Catholic Calendar).
In New Brunswick, where their numbers are highest, this includes a
separate, provincially-funded French language school system. Their
proudest achievement, of which they often boast proudly, is of having
survived the worst and remained a distinct nation.
In the 1870's, the provincial government tried to impose a
non-sectarian school system on even the fiercely religious Acadian
people. This led to a major revolt in Caraquet in 1876, resulting in
two deaths: a government representative, and an ordinary Acadian
citizen who has since become a folk hero, Louis Mailloux. A high school
is named Louis-Mailloux in his honor.
As a compromise--at the risk of oversimplifying what happened--the law
was changed. Within "official" school hours, no religion is taught,
whereas at other times, anything goes. This was upheld in 1890 by the
New Brunswick Court of Appeals. (Of course, this was a little less
than 100 years before Canada adopted a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)
Since then, what still amounts to a sectarian French-language system
has prevailed. As recently as two years ago, a constitutional expert at
the University of Moncton said the system would probably withstand a
court challenge under the Charter of Rights. This is not to say that
the English system did not suffer from religious indulgence on the part
of its teachers, but they were of all types of denominations and had to
please everyone at once, while the French catered almost exclusively to
We wanted to send our daughter Christina to a French school because of
our background and also because French is harder to learn as a second
language than English. However, we found out that catechism was still
being taught during what we would consider normal school hours,
"official" or not. In order that she not be taught catechism, we would
have to tell school authorities, who would then see to it that she is
taken out of catechism class and given other educational work to do
(even though other students aren't graded for catechism).
In our own experience, catechism courses continued until about grade
nine, and sometimes courses at the high school level would be
interrupted for a period of religious instruction, or for inviting
students to a weekend of religious activities (sometimes former drug
addicts who were "saved" by the church). These days, it still occurs
until at least grade seven, according to our grade seven neighbor.
(Imagine a government-run system that churns out anti-abortionists by
Since only so many hours were "officially" school hours, what happened
before and after was not bound by the non-sectarian rule. Of course, a
child cannot appreciate that there is an important difference between
catechism and mathematics. To them, a course is a course is a course is
a course ...
Unlike the United States, there is no establishment clause in Canada.
People are free to worship or not, but there is nothing to stop
government and religion from getting entangled. The preamble to the
Charter of Rights states that Canada is founded upon principles that
recognize the supremacy of God.
English schools aren't immune to religious practices, but we were
assured that at the Grand Falls English school there would be no
religious instruction of any kind. Luckily, we live in an area that has
an English school. A potentially expensive and possibly futile court
challenge was therefore not considered as there seemed to be an easier
We decided we would not want our daughter in a French school because 1)
she would not take catechism, and as a result, 2) she ran the risk of
mistreatment by students who, at a young age, simply don't know better,
and by teachers who never have grown up. Of course, just being raised
as a freethinker makes Christina open to discrimination, but we would
rather she be a thinking and independent person than jump into a lake
just because everyone else does.
Unfortunately, this also means she must learn English in time to be
able to attend an English school. This means we have had to teach her
English for the past few years. This has led to people criticizing us
for not teaching her French (just about a mortal sin). After all, how
are the French people to continue to exist if the language is not
handed down to the next generation? These people refuse to understand
that her moral and intellectual integrity are more important than
helping to keep French population numbers up.
Our views should be no secret to anyone. There are no other Larssons in
Grand Falls, and the name was correctly spelled when one of Sue's
letters was published in one of the area weeklies, L'Action rgionale.
They know how we feel about religion in general and catechism in
schools in particular. The letter blasted the school board for not
being more open to non-Catholics, and French people in general for not
doing anything to change this situation.
You would think that if they did indeed believe in rights for all
francophones, it would include non-Catholics. In fact, by having only
Catholic French schools and no non-sectarian ones, we are left with no
practical choice except to send Christina to an English school.
Therefore, our rights as francophones aren't being respected.
Since French and English people are equal in status in New Brunswick,
it should include the right to non-sectarian education in a
non-sectarian setting. You'd think that defenders of francophone rights
could understand that. But then, they could never be part of the
problem themselves, could they?
One possible answer, if one wishes to indulge in speculation, is that
they are not truly interested in French language rights, but rather in
a Catholic agenda. Language rights would be merely a front to conceal
this agenda, or at best would take a back seat. This may be a logical
conclusion that can be arrived at by looking at the facts. (The Acadian
Games, funded in part by different levels of government, include
religion in their activities. The highlight is when the CBC French
channel broadcasts the Games' mass on "Le jour du Seigneur," a weekly
The situation isn't bleak everywhere. For example, the school serving
the French minority in Fredericton has no religious instruction. In too
many places, however, old traditions die hard. The church wields
enormous power in Acadia because the francophones are educated in
tax-supported religious schools to believe in the Catholic Church. The
power then extends to all other aspects of Acadian life. Only the
Acadians can change that, and they don't seem to want to.
[About the writers: "Sue and I came to freethought together. When we
met, we both had our doubts about, at least, the Catholic Church, and
religion in general. We didn't realize that religion (as opposed to
simple cults) could actually be harmful until we became subscribers to
Freethought Today after seeing Dan Barker on an American talk show.
"We both took courses at the Universit de Moncton, and met at the
cafeteria for the first time. Sue, who has a visual disability, started
in special education before turning to psychology. I worked for
different newspapers and radio stations before ending up at The/La
Cataracte, in Grand Falls. Christina was born on December 26, 1987,
and people never stop telling us that she is a Christmas present. She
started kindergarten last September."]
This article is reprinted (with permission) from the January/February
1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom
From Religion Foundation.
For more information, write
Freedom From Religion Foundation
P. O. Box 750
Madison, WI 53701