Skip to main content

‘School is beyond simply academics,” social activist Marc Kielburger says in the video promoting Ontario Catholic schools.Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association

A promotional video by Ontario's Catholic schools, featuring social activist Marc Kielburger of Free the Children, is drawing criticism from its secular counterparts.

The YouTube video released this week features educators, students and graduates of the province's Catholic system praising the values learned in their schools, and at one point referring to how the religious-based system differs from the public school down the road. "School is beyond simply academics," Mr. Kielburger says in the video. "The Catholic school boards have taught us that, and that's one of the reasons why the Catholic school boards are so remarkable in what they do."

But the video, which its creators say is simply meant to promote the English Catholic system, has caused a stir.

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, tweeted his disappointment. "As a graduate of the public school it is offensive to me that my education was value-less according to this," he wrote.

Mr. Barrett said in an interview Thursday that taxpayer dollars should not be used to pit one publicly funded school system against another.

"There's certainly always been a partnership that exists between the two boards, and I think that the message that is being sent certainly would indicate that the public school board somehow does not have a values-based education because it's not religion-based," he said. "I find it hard to believe that the only way you can have a values-based education is indeed within that context."

The Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association said its message is being misconstrued.

"I really have to stress this is about our own distinctiveness. This is not meant as any competition," said Brian O'Sullivan, director of Catholic education. "I'm very proud to say we're distinctive. Not superior, but distinctive. This is part of communicating to the larger audience what Catholic education does, what its graduates have to say."

Despite what officials say, nowhere in the country is competition for students more fierce than in Ontario, where four distinct publicly funded systems – francophone public, francophone Catholic, English Catholic and English public – are present in nearly every corner of the province.

Schools have been competing for students for years as birth rates decline. Elementary students must meet certain denominational and language requirements to enroll in Catholic or francophone grade schools. At the secondary level, however, enrolment is more porous.

In the past academic year, when extracurricular activities in the English public school system ground to a halt because of a teachers' labour dispute and the system was at a disadvantage, other school boards upped their student-recruitment game, promoting sports teams and clubs and bolstering their kindergarten registration advertisements.

Mr. Barrett said the Catholic system advertisement comes at a time when all school systems need to be working together on a new round of teacher negotiations. He said the intent of the video may not be to discredit the English public system, but the message it sends is clear.

"The concept of being able to have a partner sitting at the table who is also questioning the value of our educational system is disappointing," he said.

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals did not object to the video.

"I'm confident that each system is providing high-quality education that is focused on student achievement and providing a bright future for our kids," she said in a statement. "Many boards use a variety of communications tools in order to highlight the student experience in Ontario schools."