An Acadian Dilemma By Sue and Hugo Larsson Acadians today are the descendants of the first

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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 Catholics. 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 the schoolfuls!) 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 solution. 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 televised mass.) 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 USA (608) 256-8900


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