Hot Potato

Queens Park

I always have some difficulty explaining to my American relatives why Ontario has two completely separate, publicly funded education systems. To add to the confusion, these tend to be referred to as “public” and “separate”, and though separate really refers to “Catholic”, not much differentiates these two bodies from each other.

This is a legacy of Confederation. Back in the 1860s, when we hammered out the operating procedures of this country, the responsibility for education was handed to the provinces, and all of the original members of confederation, I believe (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) were each constitutionally mandated to provide fully funded education through both the Catholic and Protestant streams. The reason for this is not some lingering resentment between Catholics and Protestants, but because, in 1867, most Catholics in Canada were French. Maintaining a separate-but-equal Catholic system was the easy way of maintaining French language rights across this country.

Of course, things have changed. Canada is becoming a Catholic country, and most Catholics in Ontario these days do not speak French as their first language (in any event, FrancoOntarians have their own publicly funded separate school board outside of the Catholic system). The fact that we maintained a separate Catholic system into the 1980s is likely due to legal sloth on the part of the government (although I’m not sure I blame the legislators at Queen’s Park. Eliminating public funding for Catholic schools and rolling the whole thing into a single public education system would require a constitutional amendment, and Ontarians do not want a repeat of our national toothache — even though the change could be made with only a positive vote by the governments of Ontario and Canada rather than in consultation with other provinces).

Up until the 1980s, the Catholic education system was only publicly funded up to grade 10, I believe — a relic of the time when a grade ten education was considered sufficient for one to leave school and join the workforce. Then, in one of his last acts as premier, Bill Davis announced that the Catholic education system would be fully funded, just like the public system. Catholic students no longer had to choose between grade 11 tuitions, or transferring over to the nearest public high school.

Good for Catholics, I suppose, but Davis’ decision unleashed a firestorm of controversy. Other religious groups such as the Anglicans and the Jews noted that they had their own schools, and they weren’t publicly funded at all. Why should the Catholic school attendees get special treatment? The irascible Anglican archbishop of the time (Lewis Garnsworthy, I believe), was particularly vocal on this matter, calling it outright discrimination. Some cynically suggested that Bill Davis had harmed the very public education system he’d helped build up, in order to court the Catholic vote.

If that was the intent, it didn’t work. Bill Davis’ successor, Frank Miller, won the barest minority in the next election, and was defeated at his throne speech, ending 42 straight years of Conservative rule, and ushering in Liberal David Peterson as premier.

Before I go on, I should point out a few things: Catholic schools throughout this province are producing as many well-educated students as our public schools. We have been working with this dual system for twenty-three years, now, and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Here in Kitchener-Waterloo, plenty of non-Catholics send their children to Catholic schools (my friend Dan’s school has a significant Muslim population) because of the perception that the Catholic schools in this area offer a better education. Although my own education in Toronto was strictly public, I have decided to take advantage of this situation and sign myself up as a Catholic education supporter (routing my property tax dollars accordingly), partly because of the commitment I made before I was married to raise my daughter Catholic. But even though I take advantage of this situation, as do many other Ontarians, that doesn’t mean that I believe that this situation is as it should be. But back to my post.

The years since 1984 have been volatile ones for the Ontario Conservatives. Rendered to third-party status from 1986 to 1995, they managed to elevate a hard-right fiscal-conservative firebrand to the premiership before falling to defeat in 2003. In the dying days of the Harris/Eves administration, the Conservatives brought forward a proposal to, essentially, offer vouchers for parents who wanted to enroll their kids in private (including religious-run) schools. The Liberals (in my opinion, rightly) campaigned against this policy, claiming it would draw resources out of the public education system for the benefit of a few rich parents in the face of hardship for everyone else. Now the more moderate Conservative leader John Tory is proposing extending public education funding to all religious schools, and the Liberals are hoping to repeat their election trick of demonizing him for it.

But hold on: John Tory’s proposal is not your typical voucher program. Rather, there would be strict criteria that religious-run schools would have to meet in order to obtain funding. They would have to teach the Ontario curriculum, for one. Tuition fees would either have to be eliminated or severely reduced, and they couldn’t shut their doors on prospective students arbitrarily. In other words, under a Tory administration, religious-run schools would be treated very similar to the way Catholic schools are treated.

As interesting as this idea is, there is room for criticism. Again, we are forced to ask: should taxpayer dollars be going to religiously-run schools, or should we not just concentrate on a single public education system that everyone has access to? Is Tory’s policy going to lead to segregation? In his July 30th entry of his blog, Liberal Warren Kinsella posts a press release from the Muslim Canadian Congress which had me nodding my head:

The Muslim Canadian Congress has criticized the proposal by the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario to fund private religious schools by diverting funds away from the public education system. The MCC stands for the separation of religion and state. Religious organizations have no role to play when government services are provided to the public. In every sphere of life where government interacts with its citizens—in law making and law enforcement, in utilities, transit, public recreation, social services, and above all, in education—religion is as irrelevant as gender or race.

For this reason the MCC demands that every province in Canada should have a single public school system, available to every child. We believe that only a single unified school systems should be supported by tax dollars.

MCC supports equal opportunity in education for all Canadian children. The same high quality of education must be available to all. Every child has the right to a fully trained and qualified teacher, a professionally developed curriculum, a complete range of facilities and activities, an education, which emphasizes the challenges we can foresee, and the need for training in mathematics, sciences, modern technology, and languages. An education with an uncompromising commitment to excellence, the will to develop new methods and strategies, always to improve, never to be complacent or satisfied. MCC believes that segregated schools cannot and do not meet these standards.

MCC insists that immigrant parents do not have the right to deny their children full access to the opportunities that are available to all Canadians.

Hear, here.


I agree with the stance of the Muslim Canadian Congress, just as I agreed with Anglican archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy back in 1984 — the current dual education system is unfair to religious groups that aren’t Catholic. The only way to end the discrimination is either to open public funding up to all religious schools (as Garnsworthy proposed and as John Tory proposes), or to roll the Catholic school board system into the public one. And like Warren, I agree more with the approach proposed by the Muslim Canadian Congress than I do the approach proposed by John Tory.

But nowhere do I see any indication that the Liberals will follow the approach proposed by the Muslim Canadian Congress. Nowhere do I see a campaign plank which suggests merging our two parallel education systems into one.

And that’s a problem, because while in a debate between John Tory and the Muslim Canadian Congress I’m more likely to side with the MCC, in a debate between John Tory and the status quo, I’m more likely to side with Tory. If the Catholics are allowed to maintain a school system of their own, then why not other religious groups, considering how this country is composed of so many different ethnicities and faiths? And contrary to arguments, Tory’s plan seeks to turn all interested religious schools into public schools. Through this approach, every justification the Liberals muster for maintaining a separate Catholic education system applies to all other religious-run schools.

The Liberals’ approach seems to be similar to the approach taken by the Liberals and the NDP back when Bill Davis offered full funding to the Catholic education system; at the time, the Liberals fed off the frustration of those who opposed Davis’ move, and promised to review the decision. Review the decision they did, but they didn’t change it. The cynics among us suggested that while Bill Davis had tried but failed to gain the Catholic vote, the Liberals and the NDP were still terrified of losing it. Thus we have two school boards doing the job of one, while a bunch of other religious-run schools are left out in the cold.

As much as the Liberals seek to run against Tory’s proposal to bring all other religious-run schools under the public banner, they seem unwilling to take the truly contrary position, lest they alienate the Catholic vote in an election as tight as this one has become. And that’s unfortunate. The status quo is neither good for all Ontarians, nor fair.

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