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Last month the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) published an article with a rather condescending tone: “Where did the term ‘parental rights' come from?” Other media outlets have published similar pieces, all imbued with the notion that parental rights is a foreign concept invented by malcontents who should be trusting their betters in the provincial education bureaucracies. These articles are responding to a recent series of protests throughout Canada, a movement called 1 Million March 4 Children. The protesters are parents concerned about public school board policies that encourage gender transitioning and the use of preferred pronouns. The media have generally portrayed these protests in a negative light, with some going so far as to depict them as disseminating hate.

Sad to say, this attitude is not unusual in Canada, where secularization has largely emptied the historic Protestant churches, including Anglican and Presbyterian congregations and the United Church of Canada. The province of Québec, for centuries a bastion of traditional Catholicism, underwent a rapid secularization in the 1960s known as the Quiet Revolution. Ontario was once dominated by the Orange Order, a fraternal Protestant organization with roots in Ireland's County Armagh. In both provinces, church attendance had been a respectable practice, a marker of adherence to the unofficial religious establishment. Today, to the contrary, church attendance carries little prestige, but an establishmentarian ethos persists in the form of a hegemonic expressive individualism, or what I call the “choice-enhancement state.” The few churchgoers left often take pains to put distance between themselves and those who publicly dissent from the new secular establishment. This has left the confessional Protestants and traditional Catholics with little outside support for their concerns. Hence the turn to protest.

As we near the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century, Canada increasingly resembles Europe of the nineteenth. The French Revolution of 1789 unleashed a wave of secularization across the continent through both military force and the writings of sympathetic intellectuals. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the Congress of Vienna restored the Netherlands—not as the confederal republic it had been before 1795, but as a centralized monarchy occupying all of today's Low Countries. The government, under liberal influence, pursued a top-down educational policy aimed at banishing traditional religions from the schools. This was based on the assumption that the young must be educated in a more modern worldview, which held that traditional religion should be confined to churches and private households for the sake of national unity.

This policy alienated many Catholic parents and helped to fuel the revolt leading to Belgian independence in 1830. But Protestant parents also stood in opposition. They were the nucleus of an anti-revolutionary movement led by an archivist for the House of Orange named Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876), who wrote to defend parents' concerns: “It is a presumption springing from the Revolution doctrine which, disregarding the rights of parents, considers children the property of the state.” Groen's heir was the famous pastor, educator, and eventual prime minister Abraham Kuyper, who further organized the movement, establishing a Christian university, a political party, and periodicals to carry the vision into the public realm. A convert from the liberal Protestantism of his youth, Kuyper sought to mobilize the “little people” (kleine luyden), that is, the orthodox Reformed Christians who at the time lacked the right to vote and thus bore the brunt of an unjust educational policy in which they had no voice.

What was Kuyper's vision? Unlike his cultural and political opponents, he did not seek transformation along ideological lines but the pluriformity of society—that is, a society characterized by multiple centers of authority and a variety of communities, each with its own legitimate task to fulfill. Today, we call this network “civil society,” while Kuyper used the somewhat inelegant expression “sovereignty in its own sphere.” Under this principle, families, marriages, church institutions, and a variety of purpose-oriented groups have their own distinctive legal spaces that ought to be respected by other communities and above all by the state. Efforts, for example, to bring education under government control would violate this principle, because they undercut the ultimate convictions of parents. Huge numbers of Christians believe that their allegiance to God in Christ is not limited to an innocuous private sphere but extends to the whole of life, including the education of their children. They readily sense the influence of secular ideologies in the schools and resist official efforts to portray them as religiously neutral.

The schools struggle in the Netherlands was finally settled in the so-called Pacification of 1917, when the government finally adopted a more equitable funding regime for schools that allowed for greater parental choice. In the Netherlands a one-size-fits-all system had proved inadequate for a religiously plural society. 

The Canadian ethos has long favored some form of religious establishment. This was evident in the early nineteenth century, when the Family Compact and the Château Clique ruled Upper and Lower Canada respectively as entrenched oligarchies, sparking the rebellions of 1837. Even as one establishment ended, another took its place. When the vestiges of Christendom crumbled in the 1960s, an unofficial secularism took its place, leading to changes in the Criminal Code and, in Ontario, the secularization of what had once been generically Protestant public schools.

Some provinces, mostly in the west, partially fund faith-based schools, and Ontario continues to fund a separate Roman Catholic school system. Because education is a provincial responsibility under the Constitution Act, 1867, any reform toward a more equitable system would have to take place on a province by province basis. In the meantime, many parents are increasingly uneasy with the policies made by the educational establishments in the ten provinces. If the elites fail to recognize the primacy of parental authority over their children's education, such protests as the 1 Million March 4 Children will continue.

David T. Koyzis is a member scholar of Global Scholars Canada and the author of Political Visions and Illusions.

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