restricted access A Meeting of the People: School Boards and Protestant Communities in Quebec, 1801-1998 (review)
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Roderick MacLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen. A Meeting of the People: School Boards and Protestant Communities in Quebec, 1801–1998 McGill-Queen’s University Press 2004. xxxvi, 508. $85.00

This important book offers the first comprehensive history of Protestant and English-language schooling in what is now the province of Quebec. Lavishly illustrated with a large number of maps and charts, it helps the reader through the labyrinth of provincial educational history with a detailed chronological table. The work begins with the abortive early efforts of the Anglican Royal Institution to establish a system of parish schools on the English model. It follows the development of locally supported rural elementary schools in Protestant communities before the passage of common school acts in the 1840s and examines the conditions by which those communities found themselves bound to establish 'dissenting' schools when their attempts to offer inclusive schooling failed. The early history of urban schooling is also outlined, although far more attention is paid to Montreal than to other provincial cities, before the authors discuss early attempts at secondary school organization and rural school consolidation. A particularly interesting chapter examines the fate of Jews – 'honorary Protestants' – in a school system divided between Protestants and Catholics. Other chapters deal with some of the staples of educational historiography, such as the role of the schools in the twentieth century as agencies of public health and their fostering of loyalty to a vision of the British Empire. Attention is paid to the schooling of Aboriginal peoples in the far north.

The core and perhaps much of the motivation behind the writing of this book lies with its account of the decline of rural Protestant communities in the postwar period, the democratization of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, and its adaptation to challenges posed by immigration, ethnic and religious diversity, and increasingly hegemonic French-Canadian nationalism. The authors paint a progressive and tolerant anglophone community being undermined culturally despite having assumed its civic responsibilities by sponsoring French immersion schooling before it was pressured to do so and whose approach to what is called Moral and Religious Education promoted an inclusive civic humanism, in contrast to the dogmatic superstitions of its Catholic counterparts. There is a strong sense of loss and anger at the 1997 amendment of British North America Act Article 93, which abolished religious-based school boards in Quebec, and at the subsequent organization of linguistic school boards. Apart from the administrative and social confusion involved in reclassifying schools and school populations, such initiatives are seen as further steps in the undermining of the English fact in Quebec by fragmenting what was united as 'Protestant' while leaving what was 'Catholic' largely intact. 'Protestant,' again, is portrayed as [End Page 437] secular/democratic, 'Catholic' as illiberal and dogmatic: a familiar story, but one that could profit from more evidence and critical scrutiny. The authors seem to find a glimmer of hope in the recommendations of the 1997 Proulx Report that school boards not provide any sectarian religious instruction.

Roderick MacLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen have undertaken an ambitious research effort, locating and basing much of their account on the scattered and elusive minute books of rural and urban school commissions. Theirs is an important work of recovery and preservation. While the minute books are supplemented by local histories and occasional press reports, in this case they yield an administrative history which presents little of the texture of schooling or of educational politics beyond language and religion. The period before the organization of school commissions in 1841 receives less attention than it might, and the authors have not used earlier state paper collections, which present a detailed picture of local schooling matters. As well, educational change is read from the point of view of administrators: it occurred because it was necessary, or because it 'made sense' administratively in the face of some social change, or from the fears and anxieties of the groups administrators served. Schooling as political discipline or as population government (with the exception of health) is absent. Access to a different set of sources and more systematic consideration of the processes of social change could produce...