PRINCE AND BISHOP

A principled Ontario premier would end funding for Catholic schools

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

(GEOFF ROBINS For The Globe and Mail)

Jessica Prince is a Toronto-based lawyer; Grant Bishop a candidate for the Bar of Ontario.

When an Ontario Liberal candidate recently mused that merging Ontario’s publicly-funded Catholic schools into the secular, public system was “worth looking at,” Kathleen Wynne promptly kyboshed the suggestion.

It is unfortunate that the Liberals are unwilling to address the outdated and discriminatory arrangement of publicly funding schooling for one specific religion. There is no longer any principled rationale to justify maintaining public funding for Ontario Catholic schools except that it is what Ontario has done for a century and a half. But inertia is certainly no reason to retain a discriminatory arrangement.

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Public funding for Catholic schools has no place in 21st-century Ontario.

Of course, protections for Catholic schools had a role in Canada’s 1867 constitutional architecture. In an era when the Orange Order rioted against Irish marches, Confederation incorporated safeguards to prevent the oppression of Catholics in Ontario (as well as Protestants in Quebec). Happily, Canada has evolved past such sectarian division.

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. The electorate rightly rejected the faith-based fragmentation of Ontario schooling. Dalton McGuinty hid behind the status quo, appealing to pluralism and yet pleading that the Constitution required funding for Catholic schools.

The idea that Canada’s Constitution is a serious constraint on the elimination of funding of Catholic schooling in Ontario is nonsense. It is disingenuous for politicians to invoke the Constitution in this debate, deceptively implying that fractious, multi-province negotiations would be required to make the change. Under section 43 of the 1982 Constitution, the amending procedure for making section 93 of the 1867 Constitution (the provision requiring Ontario to fund Catholic schools) inapplicable to Ontario requires only that the Ontario’s legislature and the federal Parliament pass resolutions to that effect. If Ontario wanted to do this, it would be inconceivable that the federal Parliament would deny this change, given that a mirror constitutional amendment was enacted for Quebec when that province eliminated its sectarian schools.

If the reason for publicly funding Catholic schools was the grand bargain in 1867, how can that rationale possibly apply today, with Quebec having fully eliminated publicly-funded Catholic and Protestant schools in 2000? Nearly a decade and a half later, there is no practical or principled reason for Ontario to not follow suit.

The arguments from proponents of publicly-funded Catholic schooling amount to a self-interested assertion that they are entitled to their entitlements. Some might contend that the Catholic system is no longer even very Catholic, having evolved in accordance with secular values despite the dictates of the church itself – for instance, allowing gay-straight alliances and access to contraception.

This argument is self-defeating: if the Catholic system really was just another secular schooling option, all the more reason to merge with the regular public system. Of course Ontario’s public Catholic schools remain 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 passionate teachers simply because they don’t come from the right religion.

One might ask how such discrimination and active state support for one religion could be compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter otherwise provides for equality between individuals regardless of religious affiliation and guarantees freedom of religion, for instance prohibiting requirements that businesses close to observe the “Lord’s Day” and protecting public schools from the imposition of prayer. But the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that, as long as section 93 of the 1867 Constitution applies in Ontario, the discriminatory funding of Catholic education is insulated from Charter scrutiny.

That legal reasoning is sound, but it doesn’t mean that the arrangement is just. And it doesn’t mean that our elected officials can’t change it. Many Canadian politicians have become accustomed to letting courts take the lead on social change. But the discrimination from publicly funding Ontario’s Catholic schools will persist until an Ontario leader has the courage to adopt the only principled solution. The time has come to eliminate public funding for Ontario’s Catholic schools.

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