Time to eliminate publicly funded Catholic schooling in Ontario

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors – Apart from the ongoing inequity of letting a powerful religious group have unequal benefit of the law in one of our most important government services, shaping children’s minds, the time for a change is now more than ever.
March 12, 2018.   By

This month the Halton Catholic Trustees voted to ban student fundraising “directly or indirectly” inconsistent with Catholic teachings around the sanctity of life.

Logically, that means no fundraising for Sick Kids hospital — no stem cell research — or for the United Way, which funds Planned Parenthood.

If this were a private school, this resolution would be an expression of religious freedom and the state should get out of the way.

But Halton Catholic District School Board is publicly funded. Under the Canadian Constitution denominational schools (Catholic schools in Ontario) enjoy the “same rights and privileges,” including full funding, as public schools.

The status quo requires public funds to be used to promote a religious agenda — but only one. We’re overdue to change this discriminatory and unequal situation.

In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared Ontario’s practice of funding Catholic education to the exclusion of other religions discriminatory. The UN’s power is limited to persuasion. Nothing changed.

Canadian Courts normally have the power to require governments to correct discriminatory laws. The courts have acknowledged this would normally include religious privileges enjoyed by Catholic schools. But the Charter of Rights includes a loophole to protect separate schools’ “rights and privileges” from the normal requirements of Charter scrutiny, because they were part of the original constitutional bargain in 1867.

At Confederation, Catholics in Upper Canada were a vulnerable minority and to join Canada on a secure basis, their rights needed to be guaranteed against the Protestant majority.

Obviously, things have changed since 1867. Catholics are the largest religious group in Ontario. We have a diverse population in which almost a quarter of people have no religious affiliation, and another 12 per cent of all Ontarians belong to other faiths. Canada’s identity is multicultural. In all other areas of public services, governments are bound by values of equality.

Surprisingly, the constitutional change required to remedy this inequality is not legally difficult. Changing the constitutional protection of Catholic education in Ontario is governed by section 43 of the Constitution, which requires only a resolution be passed by both Queen’s Park and Parliament.

Quebec and Newfoundland have already passed those resolutions and ended religious funding, with support from Parliament. In Quebec, the legislature voted unanimously to end funding, and in Newfoundland a referendum saw 73 per cent of the population vote to stop funding denominational schools.

Apart from the ongoing inequity of letting a powerful religious group have unequal benefit of the law in one of our most important government services, shaping children’s minds, the time for a change is now more than ever.

This month, we’ve learned that more than 8 per cent of students attending Catholic schools in Ontario aren’t Catholic. Last year, the Human Rights Tribunal held that non-Catholics could not be made to attend religious instruction when they attend Catholic school. In Toronto, Catholic schools are busing students short distances, apparently to boost enrolment.

At this point, Catholic schooling has become a part of the architecture of school choice in the province — and it may be contributing to social stratification across publicly funded systems.

Research from Scott Davies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has shown that children attending Catholic schools are more likely to have parents with post-secondary education; data collected by EQAO shows that, in the GTAH Catholic schools boards have fewer students with special education needs and vastly fewer students whose first language learned at home was not English.

We should eliminate this anachronistic arrangement because it’s right. But let’s also not forget that funding separate Catholic schools adds substantially to the cost of public education.

The Drummond report on potential efficiencies for government declined to calculate the extra cost of running parallel, publicly funded school boards. The non-profit Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods estimates that reduction in governance and administrative duplication, busing, and capital funding, as well as “efficiencies,” would result in annual savings between $1.2 and $1.6 billion.

Election season approaches. It’s time for Ontario politicians to stand up for equality in public education.

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is a professor of Law and Society at Wilfrid Laurier University with a focus on educational inequality.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2018/03/12/time-to-eliminate-publicly-funded-catholic-schooling-in-ontario.html

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