Townsfolk sad to see Mennonites move away

Montreal, Canada - They have integrated into Quebec society, getting jobs at local businesses, making friends in the area, and learning French.

But members of Quebec's only Mennonite community won't send their children to government-approved schools, balking at the teaching of evolution, the acceptance of gays and lesbians and low "morality standards."

Now, fearing child-protection officials will seize their children, 15 English-speaking Mennonite families in this small community in the Montérégie region say they will move to Ontario or New Brunswick, where laws allow their private schools.

But this "reasonable-accommodation" story has a twist.

Here, other townsfolk - mostly francophone Catholics - support the Mennonites' primarily English school, deemed illegal by Quebec's Education Department.

"It boils down to intolerance to our religion" by education officials, said Ronald Goossen, who in the early 1990s was among the first Mennonites from Manitoba to move to Roxton Falls, a sleepy town on the Rivière Noire, about 100 kilometres east of Montreal.

"It's kind of sad because we enjoy the community, we have friends and we have good rapport with our neighbours.

"But when they threaten to take our children and put them in foster homes, that's beyond what we can accept," said Goossen, 56, a hog farmer who also works in a local factory.

He said about 30 members of the community - young couples and their school-age children - will have to move before school starts. The others will follow.

News media reports last year about unsanctioned schools led to a complaint to the Education Department about the Mennonite school.

Parents were warned they'll face legal proceedings if their children aren't enrolled in sanctioned schools this fall.

That could lead to children being taken from families, Goossen said.

The Mennonites established their own school in the late 1990s, initially in a community member's home.

Since 2002, it has been housed in the Church of God in Christ, a spartan, vinyl-sided church down the road from Roxton Falls' steepled Catholic church.

Last year, eight children were enrolled in Grades 1 to 7; this fall, 11 students were expected.

Children are taught reading, writing, math, science, geography, social sciences and music. The education is mostly in English, but French also is taught.

For the school to be legal, the teacher would have to be certified and Quebec's official curriculum would have be taught.

"To do that, we would have to send teachers to schools we don't want to send our children to," Goossen said.

Community members disapprove of other schools because "we don't agree with the emphasis on evolution, which we consider false; we don't like the morality standards; and we don't like the acceptance of alternative lifestyles," he said.

Some Mennonite communities shun automobiles, electricity and other modern technology. Those in Roxton Falls drive cars and use electricity, their main distinguishing characteristics being beards on men and modest dress for women.

Last year, another small Quebec town - Hérouxville, in the Mauricie region - fueled the debate over reasonable accommodation of religious minorities by adopting a set of standards that spells out acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

In Roxton Falls, the vast majority of non-Mennonites strongly support the school, said the town's mayor, Jean-Marie Laplante. This week, he wrote letters to the Education Department and Education Minister Michelle Courchesne in an effort to save the school.

He said it should at least get a one-year reprieve, allowing the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodations to take a stand on such schools.

"We want to keep these people here - they're part of our community," Laplante said.

"They're good neighbours. They integrated into the community, they work hard, they have farms, they work in businesses in the region. They're everywhere - it's not a sect that closes itself off from others."

For a town of 1,300 people, losing "15 families hurts - it hurts economically, but it also hurts because everybody loves these people and we're saying: 'Why? Why is this happening?' "

Several non-Mennonites interviewed yesterday concurred.

"These schools are okay in other provinces; they should be allowed here, too," said Claude Dutilly, taking a break from mowing his lawn next to the Mennonite church and school.

"We should be open-minded. These are good people, part of the community. The children are respectful, well-behaved."

Education Department officials visited the Roxton Falls Mennonites in November and told them their teaching methods failed to comply with requirements.

It sent them a reminder letter in June and stressed that the community could face legal procedures.

"We are not trying to prevent them from living their life the way they want, but they have to obey the law when it comes to

educating their kids," said department spokesman François Lefebvre.

The community can send children to public school or open a private school, which would require permits and certified teachers, he said.

"They would have to follow the curriculum, but religious private schools can add specific classes dedicated to their faith."

The community could home-school their children but would have to follow the official curriculum and make arrangements with the local school board, Lefebvre added.

"Kids who are home-schooled have to use the same materials as those in public schools and be evaluated as well," he said.

In Ontario, parents who home-school children are not required to follow the province's curriculum.

"They may do so if they wish and they are highly encouraged to do so, but it is not a requirement," said Ontario Ministry of Education spokesperson Patricia MacNeil.

Parents must notify the local school board each year, she added. The school board can investigate if it has reasons to believe that parents are not giving proper instruction.

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Mennonite history

Population in Canada: 191,470

Population in Quebec: 425

Name: Comes from an early leader, Menno Simons (1492-1559) of Holland, a priest who left the Roman Catholic Church to join the Anabaptist movement.

Tenets: These reformers practised adult baptism, would not swear oaths, serve in public office or bear arms. They believed in the separation of church and state, very radical ideas at the time. To the distress of Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities, the movement grew rapidly. To deter it, a decree was issued in 1529 by the Diet of Spires that said that "every Anabaptist and rebaptized person of either sex should be put to death."

In North America: Mennonites arrived in Pennsylvania in 1683, and from there immigrated to Canada (mostly to Ontario) after the American Revolution. Mennonites also came to Canada directly from Europe. While Amish and Old Order Mennonites reject modern conveniences, they are a very small minority within the larger group of Mennonites.

Sources: Canadian Encyclopedia, Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Statistics Canada