"Quebec children are legally required to follow the provincial curriculum ... but these evangelical schools teach their own courses on creationism and sexuality that don't follow the Quebec curriculum," said Pierre Daoust, director-general of the Commission Scolaire au Coeur-des-Vallees in Thurso, Que.
Mr. Daoust's complaint sparked the province-wide investigation.
Quebec law requires school boards to assure the Ministry of Education that every child between the ages six of and 16, with the exception of home-schooled children, receives an adequate education, he said.
But the 20 elementary and high school students who attend a school operated by Eglise Evangelique near Saint-Andre-Avellin, Que., are being educated according to a Bible-based curriculum and their high school diplomas will not be recognized anywhere in Canada, he said.
Supporters of Eglise Evangelique, part of the l'Association des eglises evangeliques du Quebec, counter that the school teaches a "world view" that is essential for their students.
"We offer a curriculum based on a Christian world view rather than humanistic world view," said Alan Buchanan, chairman of a committee that reorganized the school's administration this past summer, as well as a former Quebec public school teacher.
Mr. Buchanan said Eglise Evangelique teaches evolution as well as intelligent design.
"We want the children to understand what they're going to meet in the outside world, and also what's wrong with the theory," he said. "We also teach that a better theory -- that God created the universe and so on."
While the school doesn't teach sex education, it does teach biology, he said.
"You have the Christian world view that says sex should only be in the marriage and a public school system that teaches kids about sexuality," Mr. Buchanan said. "We believe students should be taught abstinence."
He said the school met provincial guidelines during two reviews conducted in the 1990s, although they were asked to add a Canadian history course.
Ministry spokeswoman Marie-France Boulay said yesterday the province will negotiate for several weeks with an unspecified number of evangelical schools to determine whether they can meet provincial standards that include the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution.
Ms. Boulay said two or three unlicensed evangelical schools in the Outaouais are affected.
In addition to the 20 students at Eglise Evangelique, another 40 students attend an unlicensed evangelical school in Gatineau, Que., which falls under the jurisdiction of the Commission Scolaire des Draveurs. There is a third in Hull, Que., Mr. Daoust said. The other school boards haven't complained.
The Quebec government knows of about 30 unlicensed religious schools in the province, including Hasidic schools and several evangelical Christian schools in Montreal, said Dermod Travis, who served on Quebec's Comite sur la langue d'enseignement, a tribunal that hears special cases from the province's educational system.
Other religious denominations may operate faith-based schools as well, but no one really knows where they are.
The Quebec government has known about unaccredited religion-based schools for years, but has tolerated them for fear of offending the denominations sponsoring them.
Members of the Pentecostal Eglise Nouvelle Alliance in Gatineau, which operates a school for about 40 students, refused to discuss the Ministry of Education investigation because their minister, Charles Boucher, is out of Canada until Nov. 1.
Ontario schools are not required to teach either evolution or sex education, said Elaine Hopkins, executive director of the 900-member Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, which has 120,000 children attending schools with a few as 10 students and as many as 1,000.
Many parents send their children to independent schools because they object to the teaching of certain subjects in the public schools, she said. "These are issues that should be decided by the parents, not the province."
At the elementary level in Ontario, there are no curriculum requirements for independent schools at all, although Ms. Hopkins points out that the industry is market-driven.
"It's called direct accountability to the parents," she said. "If you're not going to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, the parents aren't going to pay for it."
At the high school level in Ontario, independent schools are inspected by Ministry of Education officials to ensure that they meet curriculum and hours-of-instruction guidelines for credits to be accepted by the ministry.