Public funds shouldn’t pay for Catholic schools in secular Ontario

Posted on November 3, 2014 in Education Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary -A new book by recently retired Ontario politician Greg Sorbara makes a strong case for ending public support of Catholic schools.
Nov 03 2014.   Charles Pascal

When it comes to publicly funded education in Ontario, it’s time to let go of our “separate ways” so we can come together. Providing Catholic education with public money is an anachronism waiting to be brought to an end by a courageous Queen’s Park legislature.

No doubt it takes political courage to bring Ontario into a present so different from 1867 when the deal to support a single religion’s aspirations with tax dollars was reached to construct the Canadian “entity.” Enter Greg Sorbara, the highly respected but recently retired Ontario politician. In his just published memoir, Sorbara recommends the end of separate school funding, noting “the Ontario of today is a secular society that is a welcome home to every religion in the world.”

One wonders why incumbent politicians find certain files so politically toxic. Exhibit A? While giving up on the monarchy has a significant public opinion edge, those royalists who want to hang on to the Queen’s skirt tails are tougher and more vociferous than the majority. The same dynamic exists with the funding of a separate school system in Ontario.

From a principled perspective, as Sorbara points out, it simply does not make sense to continue singling out a sole religion for public support. From a political perspective, well, just ask recently elected mayor John Tory.
Irony of ironies, Tory may not have become mayor of Toronto had he not led with his chin in his campaign for premier in 2007, when he advocated for the provision of tax dollars to support additional forms of religious education. But for that miscalculation, he might have become premier of Ontario.

I have no doubt that Tory thought of his vision as a principled matter of equity — “let’s fund others because we fund Catholics.” Fair enough, but holy “two wrongs don’t make a right”! No doubt, Sorbara, who headed up Dalton McGuinty’s successful campaign over Tory in that provincial contest, did cartwheels with Tory’s political gift of gaffe. When Sorbara enthusiastically offered Tory support for his run for mayor earlier this year, was he simply returning the favour? Or was it just two guys hooking up in their shared sense of what’s best for the city? Maybe a combo.

In rejecting Tory’s bid for Queen’s Park, the people of Ontario were not only turning thumbs down on his expanded version of “public education,” but implicitly rejecting the very existence of Catholic support as well. Make no mistake, the Catholic leadership was very nervous that Tory’s plan would ignite an electoral wake-up call and provide enough political capital for the McGuinty/Sorbara partnership to risk the ire of the Bishop. Likely considered too much of a distraction, they took a pass.

But there is nothing like the freedom of expression that arises with post-political life. Thankfully, Sorbara, a Catholic himself, who had a youthful dalliance with studying for the priesthood, is now pressing for Ontario to follow the lead of Quebec and Newfoundland who have already done the political heavy lifting that wasn’t so “heavy.” In Ontario, this historical “contract” continues to provide support for an idea crafted in a context breathtakingly different from today and foreign to anyone’s aspiration for a better future.

Within a secular context, it is easy to imagine an Ontario curriculum embedded with a comparative “beliefs” opportunity for building understanding and empathy regarding different religions. Strengthening a collective “commons” by fostering deeper respect for our differences is the right pathway.

With certainty, Catholic leaders will respond with a very spirited argument for their special “faith-based” approach. This is perfectly understandable. A deal is a deal and history is on their side. There are countless examples of wonderful Catholic education experiences provided so well for so many for decades. Catholic educators have pioneered many innovations worthy of adoption by the public side. All good, but it is well past the time to pursue a single public system in Ontario.

In my view, the purest and most consistent approach to supporting one’s faith and that of our children is at home and in our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues; or perhaps, in a nearby park, meditating on core notions of decency and respect for those around us.

The subtitle of Sorbara’s book is The Battlefield of Ontario Politics. While he has left the battlefield, it’s never too late to provide his former colleagues with something worth fighting for.

Charles Pascal is a former Ontario deputy minister of education and professor at OISE/University of Toronto. >


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One Response to “Public funds shouldn’t pay for Catholic schools in secular Ontario”

  1. Kayla Aelick says:

    This article was very interesting because it raised a question that I have had for most of my life: why are there public schools and Catholic schools? It always seemed strange to me that Canada prided itself in having the separation of religion and state, but had a religious and a non-religious form of public education. Furthermore if they do choose to have a religious based school system then why do we have only one type of publicly funded religious education system excludes the many other religious faiths in Canada. I know many people who belong to other religious faiths and they have attended private schools (if they could afford it).
    I know having several different publicly funded school boards for the different religions is not practical, but I don’t see why in public schools there cannot be faith based classes or after school programs that allow individuals to explore religion. For me personally, who does not partake in organized religion but has great respect for people’s religious beliefs, I feel like this would have been a great opportunity in high schools just as it has been in university.


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