Opinion – Catholic Schools in Ontario

By: Evan Engering

The plaintiffs contend that segregated public schools are not “equal” and cannot be made “equal,” and that hence they are deprived of the equal protection of the laws. [1]

These words, first argued by the legal team of Oliver L. Brown sixty years ago last December and reargued sixty years ago this December, were the central argument in the consolidated landmark US Supreme Court case, Brown v. Education Board of Topeka. The court case, a constitutional challenge to the concept of “separate but equal” established in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, was a major victory for the civil rights movement in America, as it spelled out the end of segregated school systems, allowing children of all races the chance to integrate and learn together in the same public school system.

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As the sixtieth anniversary of the arguing of the case passes by without much reverence, I am reminded of our own segregated public school system in Ontario. In a meeting of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation, participating delegates voted to adopt a policy resolution calling for a single, secular public school system in the province.[2]

The separate school system, a constitutional right that dates back to the British North America Act, is a relic of the days of English and French colonialism. Originally conceived to protect the educational rights of the Catholic minority, it is now a discriminatory remnant of the past and a blemish on our cultural mosaic.

In the twenty-first century, hundreds of years after the Enlightenment and the conception of the separation of church and state, in a country that prides itself in multi-culturalism, we have a policy of checking baptismal records of children for admission into publicly funded schools. [3] The policy also affects the tax expenditure of the parent, leaving the Church of Rome with a de facto administrative role (through the issuance of the sacrament) over the funding of our school boards.[4]

This leaves communities vulnerable to cultural hegemony on the micro-regional level. If one examines the Statistics Canada data on religion, taking into account the fact that Protestant Christianity is a statistical amalgamation of several different sects, Catholics are likely no minority in the province, with the plurality of the Protestant coalition outnumbering the Church by less than a percent. [5] So if a majority of parents in a given area opt to have their child admitted to the Catholic system, the public system will have to make due without the allocation of their tax dollars. Thus, school boards across the province, by virtue of this policy, are upholders of the nineteenth century concept of separate but equal.

So why have we dragged our collective feet as Ontarians and Canadians on this issue for so long? A combination of identity politics and inertia causes it to be perennially ignored come election time, or anytime for that matter. Like, for instance, the Senate, it is a contradiction to our collective values that has become a permanent part of the scenery of the Canadian landscape. It has always been there, and it likely always will. I often hear, whenever the issue is raised, the laboriousness of the political effort needed to change it as an excuse. “It’s in the Constitution. You’ll need it to pass both houses of federal legislature and every single provincial legislature!” Fortunately, this is not the case when making a constitutional change affecting only one province. A bill to the effect need only be passed by the legislature of the province concerned, in addition to the federal legislature. [6]

The last time the issue was brought to the forefront of the political arena was the 2007 provincial election, when PC leader John Tory proposed not one publicly funded school system, but an unlimited number of them (the website produced for this short-lived campaign to split school funding amongst any and every faith amusingly understated “a great many details need to be worked out to implement this promise if the PCs are elected.”) [7]Despite the failure it caused for the 2007 PC campaign, current party leader Tim Hudak refused to abandon his push for “giving choice to parents”,[8] and even reiterated these intentions at one point during the last election in 2011.[9][10]

So, we are stuck with one party that only wants to circumvent and partially exacerbate the problem, two other parties that are largely silent on it, and the Green Party, which holds no seats in the legislature, committed to resolving it.[11] How long then, will we continue this charade of equality? Will we keep having to witness clashes between politicians and clergy when the secular values we expect our public institutions to reflect clash with religious dogma, as they did last year over acceptance of homosexuality? What will the state of our public education system be like next spring on the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown v. Education Board of Topeka US Supreme Court decision? Will we still be “separate but equal?”

[4] Ibid.

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