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marcus gee

CityPlace is a big complex of condominium buildings in downtown Toronto, just north of the Gardiner Expressway. After years of delays, authorities are at last preparing to build two schools there to serve local families with children. One will be public, one will be Catholic. Both will get government funding.

Think about that. CityPlace, as with the city around it, is a diverse place. Residents from all sorts of backgrounds are thrown together in one community. Why, then, is it getting two different schools? What is the rationale, in a multicultural city that is striving to integrate throngs of newcomers, for maintaining and funding a whole separate school system established on religious grounds?

The publicly bankrolled Catholic school system is a glaring anachronism in a 21st century metropolis. With every year that passes, it looks more outdated, more out of step with the evolution of the city, the province and the country.

The separate school system is the result of a 19th century bargain. Constitutional guarantees for religious minorities were part of the arrangement that led to Confederation.

Related: Saskatchewan ruling on Catholic schools could have far-reaching consequences

Read more: Ontario's competing school boards spend millions to attract students

Catholics in Ontario and Protestants in Quebec got the right to keep their own publicly supported schools. That was 150 years ago, at a time when just about all schools were religious schools and the churches were a powerful force in national life.

This, to state the obvious, is a much different time. Toronto is not a city of churches, divided between dominant Protestants and minority Catholics. It is a city of the world. Its residents come from every part of the planet and practice every known religion, from Islam to Tibetan Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. Many have no religion at all. It is a much more secular age.

In a place that is welcoming so many people from so many corners of the world, it is imperative, while respecting differences, to bring everyone under the same tent. The schools are where it happens. Kids from everywhere come out of them as Canadian as can be. Why do we insist on hiving some of them off into a whole separate system?

It is divisive by definition. In one part of Toronto, most of the Portuguese kids may go to the Catholic schools; in another, it may be the Filipino kids. They are bundled with their own kind. It would be far better for the social health of the city to see everyone mixed in together in a single secular, public system.

If parents want their offspring to have a religious education, let them pay for it. They have every right to set up separate schools if they wish, but not to demand that they get funding from the public purse. As it stands, taxpayers at large end up paying the freight. That's unfair. It's also discriminatory. Why should government help Catholic schools, but not Jewish schools or Islamic schools?

Ontario's government says it has no option. The Constitution makes doing away with publicly funded Catholic schools impossible. Not true. Both Quebec and Newfoundland replaced their denominational school systems. A second defence of the status quo is that no government could survive the backlash. That might be wrong, too.

A small lobby group that is planning a legal challenge to public funding for separate schools notes that opinion polls tend to show a majority in favour of ending public support. The One Public Education Now (OPEN) group says that combining school boards and creating one public system could save up to $1.6-billion a year. It is getting lots of donations and thumbs-up messages for its challenge.

Why? Because when they think about it, most people understand there is something backward, even unCanadian, about supporting a system that separates children on the basis of religion. When, a decade back, Ontario Conservative leader (now Toronto Mayor) John Tory proposed extending funding to all religious schools, voters bridled at the idea of splintering people by faith.

The publicly funded separate school system continues mainly because of inertia. It exists because it has always existed. It has been a fact of life for so long that it is hard to imagine anything different.

It is time to open our eyes. We need only look around us to see how absurd it is, in the year 2017, to open a brand-new Catholic school side by side with a public school in a modern community such as CityPlace.

Chris Spence stepped down from the Toronto District School board amid a plagiarism controversy in 2013. In a video released to The Globe he says he's willing to name under oath the person who wrote the pieces that caused the plagiarism scandal.

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