In the rest of Canada, only a tiny fraction of students attend private high schools. In most provinces, fewer than five per cent. No wonder. Tuition ranges from $20,000 to as much as $50,000 annually.
But not in Quebec. Private school tuition is capped at $4,593 a year. Some schools charge less. That makes private schools affordable to many in the province's middle class. In Montreal, one in three high school students is in private school.
The affordable tuition fees are possible because the provincial Education Ministry subsidizes private schools in Quebec to the tune of half a billion dollars a year.
You might expect that arrangement to spark a full-blown debate about public-versus-private school funding. But only a few Quebecers, it seems, want to stick their necks out on this one. The subject is, frankly, taboo.
Quebec is one of five provinces — along with B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — to subsidize private schools with public funding. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)
Entrance exam morning
Just before 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning in early October, a couple of hundred parents and their pre-teen sons and daughters file past the four-storey-high stone columns that mark the entrance of Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf.
It is entrance examination day. There are crossed fingers, jitters, smiles and tears. Parents grab a last kiss and a coffee and head upstairs to the auditorium. Their pre-teens troop down a hallway for the three-hour-long ordeal.
One mother says her son has been busy preparing.
"We did many examinations, like a practice package, just to prepare for stress. You know, to learn how to answer a multiple-choice questionnaire," she said.
If there is an symbolic mecca of elite education in French-speaking Quebec, then it is at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf.
Collège Brébeuf was founded by Jesuits in 1928. Pierre Elliott Trudeau is an alumnus, and so is Justin. So is millionaire independantiste Pierre-Karl Péladeau, as well as multiple premiers, judges, doctors, CEOs, scientists and artists such as Régine Chassagne — co-founder of one of the world's hottest bands, Arcade Fire.
Waiting parents are treated to widescreen videos of students playing hockey on Brébeuf's own rink, doing chemistry experiments in a high-tech lab and sharing laughter with peasants in a village in Senegal.
Down in the cafeteria, a potential Brébeuf mom sneaks in a bit of work on her laptop. When her son finishes this exam, he'll gulp down a sandwich in the car as they head to another entrance test at another private school down the road.
For parents like her, there is no question about avoiding this stress and sending their children to the neighbourhood public school: "It seems that the quality that we are looking for in schools we can only find it in the private sector, and it shouldn't be this way."
Stéphane Vigneault is the founder of Mouvement L'école ensemble, an organization that aims to protect the future of Quebec's public schools.
"In Quebec now, the private but subsidized network is normal. It is like an elephant in the room that nobody sees anymore," says Vigneault, a professional communications consultant in his early 40s, who lives in a middle-class suburb in Gatineau.
Stéphane Vigneault is the founder of an organization that aims to protect the future of Quebec’s public schools. Together with other concerned parents, they're demanding an end to all government subsidies of private schools. (David Gutnick/CBC)
His own two children are in the neighbourhood public school, and when he heard other parents complaining about the education their children were getting there, he urged them to become involved to make it better.
Instead, many started shopping around for a private alternative.
Vigneault wrote a letter to the Montreal newspaper La Presse, in which he complained about what he called "school skimming."
After hearing from other parents who agreed that something had to be done, Vigneault got together with some like-minded neighbours.
They wrote a manifesto and put together an online petition aimed at politicians. Among other things, they are demanding an end to all government subsidies of private schools.
"Private schools should be allowed," says Vigneault. "But they shouldn't be subsidized."
Vigneault says parents should have to pay the full cost, just as parents do in Ontario and in four other Canadian provinces where there are no government subsidies for private schools.
The impact of the Quiet Revolution
In 1961, Quebec Premier Jean Lesage appointed Monsignor Alphonse-Marie Parent, the former rector of Laval University in Quebec City, to come up with a plan to modernize the Quebec school system.
Parent was known as a Catholic Church leader who was not afraid to tackle complex social issues.
Back then, Quebecers had one of the highest illiteracy rates in Canada. A small percentage of students made it through les collèges classiques — private, church-run high schools — and went on to university.
A recent report by Quebec's Conseil supérieur de l'éducation points to the growing number of students in private schools, and the lack of resources for public ones. (Dean Terry, Flickr cc)
In his revolutionary report, Monsignor Parent recommended that the government create a Ministry of Education to wrest control of the schools away from the Catholic Church. The government agreed: it was time to catch up with the rest of Canada.
Building a secular public education system accessible to everyone was to be at the heart of Quebec's Révolution tranquille, the Quiet Revolution.
"The government thought it was important to make a deal and have the approval of the Catholic hierarchy," said Claude Lessard, professor emeritus in the faculty of education at the University of Montreal. That meant, at least for a time, recognizing the role of the private-school system it had run for decades — even centuries — and subsidizing it.
Lessard says that if private schools were not going to be subsidized, the competition would have been seen to be unfair for the Catholic Church. "So it had to remain subsidized to a certain extent."
Claude Lessard, professor emeritus in the faculty of education at the University of Montreal, says the continued funding of private schools in Quebec shows an important paradox in Quebec society. (David Gutnick/CBC)
Quebec's Conseil supérieur de l'éducation — an independent government-sponsored think-tank — was also born during the heady years of the Quiet Revolution.
In 2016, it published a brutal report that raked Quebec's school systems — both private and public — over the coals.
The report pointed to the growing number of students in private schools, and the lack of resources for public ones.
It identified a gap between schools — the haves and the have-nots — and said it was widening year over year.
The Conseil concluded that Quebec has the most unequal school system in Canada, especially in Montreal, where the vast majority of new immigrants live, and private high school attendance is highest. The Conseil warned that the social consequences of that growing inequality between public and private schools could be dire.
Professor Claude Lessard agrees, pointing to the high concentration of immigrants in public schools that do not have the resources or the prestige of private schools.
Bill 101's unforeseen consequences
On August 26, 1977, Bill 101, the Charte de la langue française became law in Quebec. Among its measures, it required the children of almost all new immigrants to be educated in French.
Bill 101, which required the children of almost all new immigrants to be educated in French, caused a growing number of French Canadian parents to take their children out of the public system. (Bill Grimshaw/Canadian Press)
The goal was to integrate them into the Quebec majority culture. It worked: successive generations of children whose parents came to Quebec from every corner of the globe now speak, read, write and work in French.
However, there was a consequence that no one predicted:
Bill 101 led to a decision by a growing number of French Canadian parents to take their children out of the public system and send them to private high schools.
Lessard compares it to "the white flight of busing in the States in the '70s."
"Mixity is not only good in terms of citizenship and social cohesion, it is also good in terms of learning," Lessard said, pointing to a raft of studies over the decades that have all reached this conclusion.
He says that if trends continue as they are, a majority of high school students in some Montreal and Quebec City neighbourhoods will be in private school.
"The public nature of the public system is going to explode," says Lessard. "It won't be public and it won't be something that is common and geared to the development of a citizenship."
The Conseil report concluded that Quebec has the most unequal school system in Canada, especially in Montreal, where private high school attendance is highest.
In defence of the private high-school system
David Bowles, the director of Collège Charles-LeMoyne, a private high school on Montreal's South Shore founded by parents in 1975, is the spokesperson for the association that represents 193 Quebec private schools, educating more than 110,000 students.
Bowles is quick to defend private schools against charges that they are a threat to social cohesion and drain the best students from the public education system. He dismisses the conclusions of the Conseil supérieur de l'éducation report.
"Free-market competition helps everyone improve in the education world," Bowles says.
David Bowles is the director of Collège Charles-LeMoyne, a private high school on Montreal’s South Shore. He says free market competition benefits everyone. (David Gutnick/CBC)
As for the government's decision to cap private school tuition fees and subsidize those schools, he says the parents that choose private school "are actually subsidizing the government. If those kids are going to the public sector, it will cost the government close to a billion dollars more."
Josée Legault, a veteran columnist with the Journal de Montreal, is one of the few Quebec opinion-makers who has stuck her neck out and called for the government to stop subsidizing private schools. She knows she is on sensitive territory: many of her friends and readers send their children to private high schools.
Her recent column on the subject was entitled, "Le tabou ultime" — the ultimate taboo.
"It is not an issue of money," she explained. "It is a question of social equity. It is an issue of social justice. So even if it costs a little bit more money, it would create a much more just school system."
Legault does not blame parents. She says that when they hear how public schools have problems with everything from mould to student behaviour and crowded classrooms, they want to make sure that their own children get a good education.
"Private, publicly-funded schools do not have these horror stories. They do not have violence within their walls, they do not have students with behavioural problems because, you know what, they don't take them. They refuse them," Legault says. "They take the cream at the top, and they leave the rest to the public system."
Politicians vote to keep subsidies
Last spring in Quebec's National Assembly, the leader of the left-wing party Québec Solidaire brought forward a motion asking the government to halt all subsidies to private schools.
Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir and candidate Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois called for an end to private school subsidies earlier this year. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
It is what Stéphane Vigneault and his group of parents had been seeking.
In a very rare moment, the Liberal government and the opposition Parti Québécois were on the same page.
The motion was defeated 102 to 2.
Josée Legault says she was not surprised.
"They send their own children to private subsidized schools," she points out. "Most education ministers — the people who are supposed to be the guardians, the protectors of the public system — send children to private, subsidized schools."
"Anywhere else in the world there would be people in the streets. They would be going, 'What happened to us?'" she says. "Here, it is like that is the way it is. That is just the way it is."
Professor Lessard says that the continued funding of private schools in Quebec points to a paradox in Quebec society: "We consider ourselves as a society to be open, egalitarian and democratic, whereas our institutions, more and more, function on an entirely different basis and are much more elitist, much more segregative," he says.
Education Minister Sébastien Proulx and his Liberal government stood with the Parti Québécois in defeating the motion to end private school subsidies. (CBC)
"No one wants to touch that because it is too divisive, too politically costly, and maybe because we don't want to see the reality that is behind because it doesn't fit the image that we want to give of ourselves," Lessard adds. "It is not a conspiracy, it is not a plot, it is: '[Leave]
the system as it is.' And we don't know what to do with that situation. It is out of our control."
Click 'listen' above to hear the documentary.
CLARIFICATION: - October 30, 2017
In Quebec, all private high schools governed by Bill 101 - the Charter of the French language - receive government subsidies, and must cap their tuition rate at $4593.00 this year. This applies to the vast majority of French-language private high schools, and also to some English-language private high schools.
If a private high school does not follow Bill 101 regulations, it does not receive government subsidies and can set its own tuition rate, as in the rest of Canada.
Even in private high schools governed by Bill 101, there are no limits on extra fees that can be charged for various student activities.
-- David Gutnick