Quebec knew about illegal Hasidic religious schools for decades, trial hears

Clara Wasserstein, left, and Yochonon Lowen arrive at courthouse in Montreal, Monday, February 10, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government knew for decades that children in a Hasidic Jewish community north of Montreal were not receiving a legal secular education, a witness said Monday at a trial centering on a couple’s claim they were deprived of a proper education.

Maryse Malenfant, who oversaw private education conformity for the Quebec education ministry, confirmed that she became aware in 2005 that none of the boys attending religious schools in the ultra-orthodox Tash community in Boisbriand, Que., were being schooled according to provincial norms.

She said the situation had existed for several years, but legislation in place at the time gave the province limited powers to investigate. For example, inspectors could not act without knowing the school’s exact address, she said.

Superior Court Justice Martin Castonguay asked Malenfant whether the ministry was aware “that there were children not in school” between 2002 and 2005. “We knew there were children not being sent to school, but we didn’t know where they were,” she replied.

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READ MORE: Ex-Hasidic couple taking Quebec government to court over religious school education

She said the ministry eventually visited the boys’ school in 2009 after receiving a complaint.

The case was initiated by a former Hasidic couple, Yochonon Lowen and Clara Wasserstein. They are seeking a judgment against the province and several Boisbriand Hasidic schools declaring they violated provincial education laws.

Under questioning by the couple’s lawyer, Bruce Johnston, Malenfant also acknowledged the existence of a 1995 report suggesting authorities knew the insular Hasidic community had been operating illegal religious schools or not educating children to provincial standards since 1980.

The report, which discussed the application for a permit for a Hasidic girls’ school, acknowledged the department had been working to “regularize” the educational situation of the children in the community since the school opened.

The permit application, the report read, was an attempt to “correct the situation of illegality it has found itself in since its opening in 1980,’ it read, adding that “nothing has changed” for elementary and high school boys, who received mainly religious educations.

In court documents, Lowen and Wasserstein claim they received almost no secular education when they attended Tash religious schools in the 1980s and early 1990s. They say that due to a lack of education and language skills, they have struggled to find jobs and integrate into Quebec society since leaving the community in 2010.

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READ MORE: Court orders Montreal religious group to provide kids’ names, citing schooling concerns

Lawyers for the province and the Hasidic community acknowledged on Monday there were problems in the past but said they’ve been addressed through a combination of recent legislation and home-schooling agreements between the communities and the school boards.

On Tuesday, the head of home-schooling for the provincial Education Department told the court that some 830 Tash children in Boisbriand have been registered as home-schoolers through the Wilfrid Laurier School Board.

Since the arrangement with the community began in 2018, Caroline Kelly said, the board has hired three full-time counsellors. They work with other staff who provide resources and educational plans to families and meet with each family at least once a year.

She said members of the community also meet with representatives from the school board and province on a regular basis to discuss recent legislative changes that will require home-schooled students to meet minimum requirements in subjects including languages, math, science and social studies.

Some 1,400 home-schooled students from other Montreal-area Hasidic communities are registered with the English Montreal School Board, she said. The Hasidic families are required to follow the same rules as any other home-schooled students in the province, she said.

On Monday, a youth protection agency employee testified day that an educational assessment of 320 boys in the community launched in 2014 found that 280 were “educationally compromised,” with most of the Yiddish-speaking youth unable to write or communicate in English or French.

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By 2017 the situation had improved markedly, but many of the students remained below the level of their peers of the same age, the official said.

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