What Did Loyola Really Decide?

My first serious engagement in public policy matters occurred in 1997 when I was asked to join the Groupe de travail sur la place de la religion à l’école publique du Québec. Our mandate was to reflect on the place that religious teaching should have in Quebec’s public schools. Quebec was already in the process of eliminating religious school boards, but that administrative measure left untouched the content of religious teaching in Quebec’s public schools. Parents of a certain age will remember that for a number of years, they were required to tick off a box when signing their kids up for school indicating whether they wanted them to receive Catholic religious teaching, Protestant religious teaching, or non-confessional moral education.

That situation was clearly unstable. First, now that schools in the public system were no longer Catholic or Protestant, it required of each school that it provide three different kinds of course, a logistical nightmare for resource-strapped public schools.… Continue reading

Physician-Assisted Dying: What Now?

Five years ago, I agreed to join an “expert panel” of the Royal Society of Canada. Our mandate was to provide a broad assessment of end-of-life care in Canada, and to make recommendations on how it might be improved. One of the recommendations that we made in our 2011 report was that there was no ethical justification for the maintenance of the criminal prohibition preventing physicians from helping their critically ill patients to die a dignified death, one that conformed to their wishes, and avoided them needless suffering.

I was therefore naturally very pleased when the Supreme Court of Canada issued its judgement in the Carter case, declaring that those articles of the Criminal Code were incompatible with Canadians’ Section 7 rights to life, liberty and security of person. Looking back at the 1993 decision in which a 5-4 majority had ruled that those articles were not in fact unconstitutional, a unanimous Court this time argued, in essence, that the empirical environment in which it was now being asked to render judgment had changed.… Continue reading

The (messy) ethics of freedom of speech

A few days ago, I took part in a very interesting panel discussion on the issue of free speech. The panel was prompted by the tragic events that took place in Paris a couple of weeks ago. One of the most interesting aspects of the panel was that despite our disagreements, none of the participants actually thought that the brutal murders at Charlie Hebdo actually raise any particularly interesting issues to do with freedom of speech as it is usually understood. As far as I am able to tell, hardly anyone thinks that the cartoons that the satiric magazine has published over the years warrant censorship. Even commentators who believe that there are cases in which the state appropriately steps in to limit freedom of speech – cases in which speech promotes hatred toward an entire group, for example — acknowledged that Charlie Hebdo steered clear of the line separating ridicule directed at religion, religious symbols and religious beliefs on the one hand, and contempt or hatred directed at a group of people, on the other.… Continue reading

Thinking about Secession in Catalonia

I’m in Barcelona for a couple of weeks, teaching an accelerated seminar in the European MA program at Pompeu Fabra University. Yeah, I know, tough life.

Shortly before my arrival, requests for interviews with major Spanish newspapers started filling my inbox. Well, “filling” may be a bit too strong a word. I actually received three such requests, but they were from major outlets such as El Pais, a major national paper, and Aran, a newish paper started by Catalan separatists. They all wanted me to comment on recent events in Catalonia. (A referendum of sorts was held here on November 9th. The Spanish constitutional court deemed it illegal, and so it ended up being a bit of a non-event, with slightly under 40% of eligible voters turning up to vote in what had been downgraded to a “participatory consultation”. The “yes” option received a resounding majority of votes from those who showed up.… Continue reading

Free Spirits: An Argument against State-Run Booze

When I lived in Oxford, I loved to go shopping for wine. There were a couple of wine stores down the street from where I lived that were clearly owned by wine-lovers. New arrivals had lovingly inscribed tasting notes taped to them. The selection in the two stores was quite different, and clearly reflected the tastes of the owners.

I don’t enjoy shopping for wine in Montreal that much. That’s because rather than being able to walk into a small store with lots of character, I have to go to the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) retail stores. Don’t get me wrong: these stores are bright and efficiently run. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there is nothing particularly right about them either. Each store is pretty much the same as any other. The folks who work there are unfailingly courteous and knowledgeable, but they are knowledgeable in the way you become knowledgeable when you take a 3-week training course, rather than in the way you are because you have developed a personal obsession with a particular cépage, and have idiosyncratically but charmingly stocked your store to reflect your particular obsession.… Continue reading

In the wake of Jian Ghomeshi and #beenrapedneverreported: How do we move forward?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the sordid Jian Ghomeshi story has been the ensuing explosion of women’s voices recounting episodes of sexual violence that have gone unreported. #beenrapedneverreported, a hashtag launched by my friend Sue Montgomery of the Montreal Gazette and Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star, has become a sad but necessary global phenomenon. Thousands of women from around the world have used the hashtag to share painful memories sometimes buried decades in the past.

Being able to share these painful memories has had a therapeutic function for many of these women. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go years with the pain and trauma of sexual assault compounded by the feeling that, for a variety of reasons, this pain must be kept secret.

There is undoubtedly a huge range of reasons that women choose not to report episodes of sexual assault. The majority of cases of sexual assault occur at the hands of people who are known to victims, often family members.… Continue reading

Le financement des écoles, prise 2: Une réponse à Jocelyn Maclure

La question du financement des écoles est de la plus haute importance pour la société québécoise. L’école est un des seuls leviers dont dispose l’État pour promouvoir l’égalité des chances. Les enfants naissent dans des conditions fort différentes. Certains naissent pauvres, alors que d’autres naissent riches. Certains naissent dans des familles qui favorisent de toutes sortes de manières le succès scolaire et professionnel de leurs enfants, alors que d’autres naissent dans des conditions familiales plus difficiles. Ces inégalités de conditions initiales risquent fort de se répercuter tout au long de la vie des enfants, à moins que l’école n’intervienne pour égaliser un peu les chances.

Force est de constater que l’école québécoise ne relève que médiocrement le défi de contribuer à une réelle égalité des chances. C’est à mon avis surtout le financement partiel des écoles privées qui pose problème. En effet, en subventionnant les écoles privées à hauteur de 60% environ, l’État québécois permet à la classe moyenne de se désolidariser des tranches moins aisées de la société en envoyant leurs enfants dans des établissements qui ne coutent « que » $3000 ou $4000.… Continue reading

Language in Quebec Schools: It’s Time for a Rethink

A report on “linguistic indicators in the education sector” published this summer by Quebec’s Ministry of Education reveals that the decline in enrollment in English schools is continuing apace. Somewhere on the order of 15% of the children who received certificates of eligibility to attend English schools in Quebec have ended up in the French school system. The actual proportion of eligible children pursuing their studies in French in Quebec is of course higher. Many parents simply don’t bother to apply for these certificates. My wife was educated in English in Quebec, and so our kids are eligible for English instruction. We applied for a certificate for our eldest daughter, sort of on the “use it or lose it” principle, but we ended up placing her in a French school anyway. We never even considered applying for a certificate for either of our younger kids.

The reason is simple. There are no more really English schools left in Quebec.… Continue reading

Who should get to vote in secession referenda?

The folks over at the European University Institute’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies host an excellent website on all matters related to Europe and to European citizenship. They recently hosted a forum on the upcoming Scottish referendum, in which they asked a number of political scientists and political philosophers to reflect on the question of who should receive the right to vote in the referendum (and, by implication, in others like it). They were nice enough to ask me, and notwithstanding my contribution, it is an excellent read. You’ll find it here.Continue reading

On Israel, Gaza, and double standards

One of the objections that has most often been leveled at critics of the Israeli government’s conduct of its war in Gaza, and of its policies towards the Palestinians more generally, has been that their criticisms are based on insidiously double standards. The Israeli government, according to this objection, is held to standards that no other country is held to. It is according to this view surrounded by enemies, and yet it is expected to act like a choirboy. “Look at Assad, look at ISIS”, the argument goes, “if you are so deeply concerned about injustice and about the killing of innocents, how come you are not raising your voices against them?”.

I confess that of all the arguments that have been made in recent weeks in the debate over the war in Gaza, this is the one that puzzles and worries me the most. It puzzles me for a number of reasons.… Continue reading