Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge has unveiled the new curriculum that will replace the province's current ethics and religious culture program.
The new program, called Quebec Citizenship and Culture, represents a "major transformation" and will include a focus on critical thinking, the minister said. The current program, which is known as ERC and is compulsory for students, has been in place since 2008.
Roberge said that the program was redesigned and modernized to address problems facing young people today.
"Quebec society has changed and there are new challenges in front of us," he said.
The program will include a section on sex education, including consent and sexual exploitation, along with media literacy, which "will lead them to flush out fake news and develop a more responsible use of social media."
The new curriculum is set to be taught in some schools next year as part of a pilot project and it will be in elementary and high schools across Quebec as of 2023.
In the section about culture, students will be taught about the foundations of Quebec society, "its evolution, its ambassadors, as well as its key works," the province said in a statement released in French on Sunday.
"This will allow students to grasp the culture in which they operate and understand that each society is influenced by a different cultural context and that is what makes a culture distinct," the statement went on.
"It is therefore the duty of each nation to protect and promote its culture, heritage and particularities."
The program will also include a section intended to educate students on the "realities" of Indigenous communities in Quebec.
In the statement, Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière is quoted as saying that the curriculum was developed in consultation with representatives from First Nations and Inuit communities.
"Partners from these communities will continue to be involved so that young people can be sensitized to the realities of Indigenous people today. I am hopeful that this concrete action will help bring our nations closer together," said Lafrenière.
In the citizenship section, the program will teach "the fundamental principles of civic life, such as respect for self and others, freedom of expression and conscience, equality between all and secularism," according to the statement.
"These values are at the heart of the struggles that are dear to us, such as the fight against sexism, racism and homophobia."
The final section of the program touches on critical thinking, dialogue and ethics.
Students will be taught to think through moral dilemmas and evaluate social, religious, cultural and scientific norms.
"In this time when censorship is taking up more space in our society, it is essential to defend freedom of expression and to equip our young people to allow them to argue with respect," he said.
While students will be encouraged to debate and adopt stances on issues, Roberge said teachers should remain "neutral" and not advocate for one political ideology or another.
"They help kids to have critical thinking but they don't tell them what to think," he said.
Before its implementation, the Quebec Citizenship and Culture course will be submitted to "rigorous" vetting from various committees and network partners in education.
A controversial course
The old ECR curriculum was introduced by the Charest Liberal government. It has been a flashpoint in the debate over religious accommodation.
Members of Quebec's secularism movement argued ethics and religious culture should not be combined in a single course and could lead students to conclude it's not possible to act ethically without religious belief.
Some Catholic parents, as well as parents of other faiths, didn't want their children learning ethics and comparative religious beliefs outside of their own moral and religious framework and argued that making the program mandatory was unconstitutional and infringed on their religious freedom.
That argument was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, where it was rejected in a ruling that said exposing children to various religions did not constitute a violation of fundamental rights.
On Sunday, Roberge said the current program puts too much emphasis on religion and that this new course will include religion as part of a broader consideration of culture.
When asked whether the program is merely a reflection of the CAQ government's vision of a secular state, Roberge responded that he felt this was an "unfair criticism," pointing to the program's emphasis on equality and anti-discrimination.
Old program had emphasis on diversity
Anthony Cooperwood, who teaches the ERC program at Rosemount High School in Montreal, says he welcomes the idea of helping students become proud Quebecers, but he says curriculum changes that affect what gets discussed and what doesn't make him nervous.
He says the current program helps students understand the diversity that surrounds them on a daily basis.
"If I'm sitting next to a kid and she's wearing a hijab, and I'm sitting next to another kid and that kid is wearing the Star of David around his neck, and I've got another kid and he's got a cross around his neck, I've got three religions around me," he said.
Cooperwood says also he's concerned the province's new program will be, in some ways, redundant.
"If we're talking about promoting the pride of Quebec culture, I know that there are classes that already exist that focus on the history of Quebec," he said.