David Fraser's Honorary Protestants is an impeccably researched history of the tensions, contexts, and meanings of the struggles to delineate how, in what manner, and with which accommodations Jewish children were schooled in the Montreal public school system. It is a welcome addition to the fields of Canadian legal history, modern Jewish history, Quebec history, and the history of education in Quebec.
The book details the legal cases and political jockeying of Quebec's Jews to gain equal access to public education without effacing their religious difference, a saga that was shaped by the disagreements among and between Jews themselves, Protestants, Catholics, and representatives of state at the district, municipal, provincial, and constitutional levels. Though Jews gained legal emancipation in Quebec in 1832, Confederation's section 93 enshrined religious protections in education for the Protestant minority in Quebec and the Catholic minority in Ontario – and no others. "The very structures of Canadian federalism," writes Fraser, "were an ideological and intellectual barrier to rights more broadly construed." The constitutional amendment that guaranteed the rights of public education to all religious minorities in Quebec, effectively abrogating long-looming section 93, was passed only in 1997.
Fraser's thick description and careful analysis demonstrates that Jews lobbied and litigated for full inclusion based on rights as citizens under common law, and tried to manoeuvre around the constitutionally enshrined religious rights that did not include them. They were slow to success. Anglophone Protestants and Francophone Catholics tended to defend their protections under section 93 and the "ominous shadow" it cast over the entire Jewish school question. Anti-Semitism played its part, as Jewish advocacy effectively challenged the de facto Christian hegemony of Quebec. Fraser shows that, despite legal hurdles to equality, the negotiations between internally divided communities and authorial parties usually resulted in manageable, if not altogether satisfying, agreements for reasonable and continued access to public schooling for Jewish children. Honorary Protestants details these working consensuses in the "shadow [End Page 145] of legality/law." Constitutional limitations forced both friction and compromise among and between religious groups. They nevertheless worked out "constitutive," if messy, pragmatic arrangements outside constitutional and legislative legality.
Debates among and between communities and authorities revolved around a handful of issues: Jewish teachers at common schools, Jewish holiday accommodations, segregating Jewish students, public funding of Hebrew instruction, the possibility of a separate public Jewish School Board, and Jewish representation on school boards/commissions. The collection and allocation of tax dollars, and the extent to which preserving Protestant identity in the public school system was essential or desirable dominated the debate landscape.
Fraser is at his best when outlining Quebec Jews' strategies, limitations, successes, and failures. He offers a judicious background to both the legal and social aspects of the Jewish school question, nuanced description of the situation as it unfolded in Montreal, and differentiates it from the negotiations that took place in the rural Laurentian communities of Ste-Sophie and La Macaza where Jews had established sizable agricultural communities, in Montreal's suburbs Outremont, Hampstead, and in the districts of TMR, St-Laurent, Côte Saint-Luc. The book analyzes Pinsler v The Protestant Board of School Commissioners in 1903, which deemed Jews "Protestants for school purposes" to guarantee them rights to public education, Hirsch v Protestant Board of School Commissioners in 1927, and loi David in 1930.
Fraser's scholarship is meticulous and unassailable on those events and dynamics he's written about, but there are gaps. The study sidesteps issues that arose from the existence of private Jewish schools that received no public funding – a twentieth-century history that ran parallel to the story told herein. A mere sentence is devoted to the schooling of Francophone Sephardic immigrants, and a single other sentence to Quebec's significant population of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Students' own perspectives aren't included. Though the study claims to take its readers to 1997, detail drops off in the 1970s. Occasionally, Fraser is so deep into the material that he offers additional legal arguments or perspectives that his subjects...