By Peter Chow
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has reiterated calls for the Ontario government to end funding of the province’s Catholic schools and move toward one secular school system for each official language. Both the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation have now called for the dismantling of the separate school systems.
That is what Quebec did in 1997.
The Ontario government has funded Catholic schools since Confederation. Most other provinces have either moved away from publicly funded schools for religious minorities or never permitted them in the first place. Ontario is one of only three provinces – Saskatchewan and Alberta being the other two – that still fund Catholic schools.
Ontario’s school boards are divided among four large separate publicly funded school systems: English public, English Catholic, French public, and French Catholic.
Charles Pascal, a former Ontario Deputy Minister of Education and now a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute For Studies In Education, said, “When it comes to publicly funded Catholic education in Ontario, it’s time to let go of our “separate ways” so we can come together. Providing Catholic education with public money is an anachronism waiting to be brought to an end by a courageous Queen’s Park legislature.”
Combining Ontario’s two largest school systems would save over a billion dollars, which should be attractive to the Ford government, given its stated goals.
Polls consistently show that the majority of Ontario residents are in favour of ending funding for Catholic schools. When the province sought budget advice from its citizens, ending Catholic school funding was one of the most common suggestions.
Politicians, however, seem unwilling right now to touch the idea of merging the school systems. The PCs, Liberals and NDP all stated during the last Ontario election campaign that they had no interest in shaking up the status quo on the issue. One exception is Green Party leader Mike Schreiner, the first member of his party ever to be elected to Queen’s Park, who has long been in favour of a single school system.
In October this year, Ontario Liberal Leadership Candidate, Alvin Tedjo, announced his campaign commitment to see the province’s public and Catholic school boards merged into one English language board and one French language board.
Tedjo, a well-known advocate for education in Ontario, argues that his plan will not only generate significant benefits for students and teachers, but will also have financial benefits that cannot be ignored. Tedjo argues that his plan to merge the school boards will result in savings of $1.6 billion dollars per year that could be reinvested back into public education for ongoing improvement.
“Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland have already done this. It’s time for Ontario to make a change and stop spending precious education dollars to maintain twice as many school boards as we actually need,” said Tedjo.
With teaching jobs in short-supply in the province, a non-Catholic is immediately at a disadvantage, as a third of the jobs are with Catholic boards. Ontario’s Catholic school boards remain tightly tied to the Catholic Church. Hiring of teachers into Catholic schools explicitly discriminates on this basis, with school boards requiring a signed affirmation from a priest that the candidate “participates in the sacramental life of the Church” and “comes from a Catholic background.” There is a surplus of willing and qualified teachers for Ontario’s public schools who cannot find work. It should infuriate any thinking person that public funding flows to schools that actively discriminate against teachers simply because they don’t come from the right religion.
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a professor of law and society at Wilfrid Laurier University, says the issue is not only unfair to teachers but is unconstitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that ending funding of separate schools is long overdue.
“We’ve known that the current status quo simply doesn’t meet our standards for international human rights or Canadian constitutional equality,” she said. “Catholics, unique among religious groups, are getting an unequal benefit of the law, have the right to have a publicly funded school system and they use that school system to advance specific religious views.”
In 1999, a United Nations human rights report found Ontario’s policy of fully funding Roman Catholic schools and denying funding to other religious schools was discriminatory. In order comply with the ruling Ontario could either extend funding to other religious schools, or end funding to Catholic schools. 20 years later, the province has done neither.
In Ontario’s 2007 election, then-Progressive Conservative leader John Tory argued that publicly funding only Catholic schools represents unequal treatment for all other religions. However, Tory picked the wrong solution, proposing to fund all religions’ schools. Tory lost the election, in large part due to his mishandling of this issue. Ever since then, both the Liberals and Conservatives, have been deathly afraid to revisit the issue.
Funding of Ontario’s Catholic schools will persist until an Ontario government has the courage to adopt the only principled solution. The time has come for Queen’s Park to find the courage to do the next right thing, to eliminate public funding for Ontario’s Catholic schools and re-affirm the separation of church and state in our educational system.