Should Taxation Fund Religious Schools in Ontario

Ontario has two publicly funded school systems, one secular and one Catholic. According to the 2001 Census there are 3,935,745 people that identify themselves as “Protestant” and 3,911,760 people that identify themselves as “Catholic”. Does it not seem strange that the one religious group that gets public funding for its schools is not the group with the largest number of followers.

Of course it all goes back to history. At the time of confederation Ontario and Quebec had Protestant and Catholic school systems. “Protection of the Separate School system was a major issue of contention in the negotiations that led to Canadian confederation, due in large part to racial and religious tension between the (largely Francophone) Roman Catholic population in Canada and the Protestant majority. The issue was a subject of debate at the 1864 Quebec Conference and was finally resolved at the London Conference of 1866 with a guarantee to protect the separate school system in Quebec and Ontario.” ((Wikipedia). This was guaranteed in Section 93 of the British North America Act, now the Constitution Act. In Ontario the Protestant system evolved into the secular school system and now there is only one Protestant school board in Ontario with one school, the Penetanguishene Protestant Separate School Board.

So we now have a secular publicly funded school system and a publicly funded Catholic school system but no public funding for the small religious groups or even the larger Protestant religious group. Does this not seem at odds with the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Charter states:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

However the Charter also states:

29. Nothing in this Charter abrogates or derogates from any rights or privileges guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada in respect of denominational, separate or dissentient schools.

In 1996, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that this was not a violation of the Charter primarily due to the provisions of section 93 and 29 of the Constitution.

So we have what appears to be a case of constitutionally entrenched violation of the Charter.

The United Nations human rights committee says Ontario's policy of fully funding Roman Catholic schools, while denying full funding to other religious schools, is discriminatory.

The status quo is a violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the Charter, and cannot be justified by any logical argument. The only argument presented for it seems to be that “has always been that way” and to try and change it would be politically difficult.

However, such constitutional provisions can be changed and have been changed, even in the Roman Catholic dominated province of Quebec which eliminated funding for Protestant and Roman Catholic schools systems and established language based school systems instead. Public funding of religious based schools in Newfoundland has also been eliminated.

So what we essentially have is not a constitutional issue but an issue of public policy. We can continue the discriminatory status quo or we can either extend public funding to all religious schools or provide it to none. There is no other justifiable or logical alternative.

The current policy of funding Roman Catholic schools has not been without concerns, including the teaching of evolution in science classes and creationism in religion class; the teaching of Catholic sex education and the church’s attitude to birth control; as well as the churches attitude towards gays and lesbians and it’s statement that they are sinners for simply being who they are.

Extending public funding to every religious group will not only see public funding of extremist groups within the mainstream religions, such as fundamentalist Christians and Muslims but potentially funding of groups such as Witches and Satanists. Lest I be cited for fear mongering, let me say it is not the labels we need to worry about. I am more worried about the extremists within the Christian churches than I am about the Wiccans. I have heard the bigotry, whether based on race or sexual orientation spouted by some so called Christian churches and I do not want taxpayers funding such propaganda. I am not as familiar with the extremists in other religions but I have no doubt that there are extremist Jewish, Islamic and other groups whose teachings most Canadians would not be comfortable with.

How would this be done. Who would decide what was a legitimate religious school worthy of funding. Who would police the thousands of individual independent schools to ensure they were following the provincial curriculum and were not teaching bigotry or hatred. It would simply be unworkable.

I am one of the biggest promoters of multiculturalism and religious pluralism is part of that. Canadian multiculturalism is a wonderful thing. It allows immigrants to become part of Canada without having to deny or abandon where they came from. It allows them to bring their cultures into the Canadian mosaic. It is important that they keep their cultural institutions. But the school system should be an institution that brings us all together, a place where we can learn about each other, share our cultures together as Canadians, and learn Canadian values.

It is time for a single publicly funded secular school system in Ontario. It is almost enough to make one vote Green


White Raven said...

I agree that there would be NO END to the problems of attempting to fund every institution that claimed to be a "religious school". Therefore, there should be one publicly funded system, yes.

Secular? No. The debate here is about teaching religious beliefs in schools, and you said it yourself, the Canadian cultural mosaic should be based on sharing knowledge and customs. Creating a system that supports every religious institution would cost a fortune in overhead. If the government took even half that money and put it towards providing secondary-level education on a strong world religion and world citizenship curriculum, students would be provided with more power to learn about these subject areas in a well-rounded way.

If the program were well enough funded (which I'm not sure it could be THIS well funded), courses on specific religions could be included as electives, allowing students to focus where they so-choose.

rww said...

A secular system does not mean you do not teach about religion, indeed teaching about religions is an important part of "social studies" classes.

BEAJ said...

Excellent post. I'm not very hip on how Canadian politics work, but I've become more political of late.

Is it possible to have a referendum so that the public can vote on public funding of Catholic schools?

The John Tory plan is nuts. It will lead to segregation in a huge way. Right now 53,000 students go to non Catholic religious schools. Those numbers will skyrocket if parents are given a choice between say a Jewish, Muslim or Baptist school versus a public school. This will ultimately create even more intolerance.