Thursday, January 12, 2012

I'm (not) a little teapot? A Muslim family's accommodation request causes consternation in Québec

The scene: a kindergarten. Little children are singing a simple song together. As usual, some follow the words easily and know the tune, while others hang back, more hesitant. At first glance, it seems like a familiar tableau.

Yet in this Québec classroom, something is different. One child is not participating--while the other children sing and chant, she sits quietly, wearing noise cancelling headphones. Her parents are conservative Muslims, and they have decided to forbid her from participating in the school's musical activities.

The Montreal tabloid Le Journal de Montréal reports that this scene is a regular occurrence at one kindergarten class in Montreal's Saint-Michel neighborhood. The decision has been backed by both the school authorities and the Ministry of Education.

Given the fact that reasonable accommodation of difference is an especially touchy subject in Québec, it isn't surprising that this story quickly roused the ire of both right-wingers and supporters of French-style strict secularism. The Journal de Montréal's conservative columnist Richard Martineau assessed the headphones as, "...the perfect symbol of the stagnation in which Québec is wallowing" and suggested that, by neglecting to rectify the situation, "the government has literally sacrificed a 5 year-old girl on the altar of state policy." Martineau doesn't pull any punches, but he also demonstrates that he has a weak grasp on the meaning of the word "literal."

Over in Le Devoir, a newspaper typically more left wing than Journal de Montreal, Antoine Baby, a retired education professor from Laval University in Québec City, offers a lengthier analysis of the situation. His polemic begins as follows:
This isn't an isolated event; it's a question of an event that is part of a worrisome and troubling trend in Quebec. It is thus necessary to come back to it and create a debate about it. It isn't sufficient to be indignant [s'indigner] about this incident; one should really be up in arms [s'insurger]. By giving in to the opportunistic and irresponsible demand of this little girl's parents, the school officials have demonstrated a serious lack of judgment and discernment.
He reserves some serious alliterative rhetorical thunder for the Ministry of Education:
[Le Devoir] has already pointed out the illogical nature of the Ministerial position which claims that the decision of the school in question doesn't go against the curriculum. This is incredible, inconceivable, unimaginable, and irresponsible!...In kindergarten, music, songs, and stories are part of the curriculum and they are a powerful tool for learning and socialization. Anyone who pretends otherwise is evidently not worthy of being Minister of Education.
And he offers a pessimistic conclusion:
Anyone who claims that by isolating a kindergarten child in this way and by approving this decision, that we've agreed on a "reasonable accommodation" is a person who has understood neither the challenges involved in constructing a modern Québec identity nor the challenges associated with integrating new immigrants.
As Professor Baby's response indicates, the headphone case has some Quebeckers riled up. It isn't difficult to see why; there is something disturbing about a child being forbidden to participate in an apparently benign activity that she would probably enjoy. Our ideals of how childhood should be are offended by the practice of depriving a child of music.

Yet at the same time, it's important to figure out whether there's any real harm to the child or his/her classroom that's going on here. The Journal de Montreal reports that the little girl is happy in her classroom and gets along well with her classmates, despite this seemingly disruptive accommodation. If this is indeed correct, then it doesn't seem as though any significant harm is being done to this child through this accommodation. Granted, she may be missing out on an educationally useful activity, but not a particularly critical one.

It is also important to keep in mind that in the event that the accommodation is not granted, the parents could withdraw this child from public school and either (a) send her to a religious private school or (b) home school her. From the standpoint of social integration, each of these alternatives would, arguably, be significantly worse. In a public school in a neighborhood like Saint-Michel, this child has the opportunity to meet other children whose home cultures are significantly different from her own. This is far less likely to be true in a religious private school setting.

In addition, neither Professor Baby nor Mr. Martineau acknowledge that there is already a quasi-official policy in place for judging whether a cultural/religious accommodation should be granted in an educational setting. The 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Report on Accommodation Practices laid out the following three criteria for adjudicating these kinds of of situations:
A request must not:
1. violate the student’s other rights or the rights of other students;
2. run counter to the rigorously restrictive requirements of the Education Act, program organization or other statutes;
3. impose undue hardships on the school with regard to its operations and budget.
There's certainly some debate that's possible about point two, but even here, it doesn't seem as though this accommodation violates any "rigorously restrictive requirement." As far as points one and three are concerned, despite Martineau's rhetoric of "literal sacrifice," there seems to be very little sacrificing actually going on. The people who are angriest about this event are those that are speculating from the sidelines. The school staff, the girl, and her parents all seem to be managing reasonably well.

We are all tempted to stick our proverbial oars in when we see accommodation of a cultural practice that we dislike. And there are certainly times when it is legitimate to protest--there have to be limits to accommodation practices, and the Bouchard-Taylor report does an excellent job of pointing out when the limits may apply. We should keep this in mind the next time the media stirs the reasonable accommodation pot.


Leonard Waks said...

David, this is a brilliant piece and deserves a wider audience.

Initially I was bugged by the request. I am still not assured that the girl and her classmates are really as ok with this as you suggest. It would be interesting to look in again at the end of the year.

But your larger point is right: no one actually seems to be harmed, and policy in place provides quite reasnable criteria for judging the case, and they would not reject the accommodation.

Len Waks

David I. Waddington said...

Thanks Len! Use the little Facebook icon below the post to share the post on Facebook if you think people might be interested...