Jan Wong: Why it’s time to talk about the elephant in the classroom—the Catholic school system

Jan Wong: Why it’s time to talk about the elephant in the classroom—the Catholic school system

Most Torontonians think the Catholic school system is antiquated, expensive and unfair. So why don’t politicians want to talk about it?

Jan Wong: The Elephant in the Classroom
(Image: Getty Images)

As Christopher Hitchens so memorably noted, “god is not great.” Please allow me to add that god is especially not great when it comes to taxpayer-funded Catholic schools.

Ontario remains the sole Canadian province that still fully funds Catholic education while not providing a cent to any other faith-based schools. About 660,000 Ontario students—one third of all students attending taxpayer-funded schools—are in the Catholic system. In Toronto alone, 92,000 are enrolled in 200 schools. Funding any religious school in a pluralistic and secular society is anachronistic, but it is especially appalling when a school’s teachings come into conflict with societal norms—as was the case earlier this year when the Catholic board refused to allow its students to use the term “gay-straight alliance.”

Politicians say that a constitutional brick wall has stymied us from dismantling the separate system. As Laurel Broten, the education minister, reiterated in May, Catholic education is “constitutionally protected.” News flash: a deal is not always a deal, and walls that men build can always be dismantled. Especially one that financially weakens our public schools by $7 billion a year, fights an inclusive student environment and discriminates against unemployed teachers, be they Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Buddhist, Baha’i, lapsed Catholic or garden-variety atheist.

History buffs can skip this next paragraph. The rest of us need to go all the way back to 1763 to trace the roots of our separate schools system. The victorious Brits struck a deal at the Treaty of Paris protecting the rights of Quebec’s Catholics to practise their religion. In 1841, when the governments of Upper and Lower Canada were combined to form a single legislature, Catholics and people of other faiths were allowed to establish denomi­national schools. And at the time of Confederation in 1867, Catholic education rights were secured constitutionally while control over education was passed to the provinces.

I appreciate 1763 and 1841 and 1867. What shocks me is our collective passivity in 2012 and our inability to tackle the core issue. Instead, we shrug and sigh as if the guns just fell silent on the Plains of Abraham.

In 1999, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled it discriminatory to fund only the Catholic system. Certainly the unfairness rankles. You may be a taxpayer with school-age children and live next door to a Catholic elementary school with small classes, a music program and decent computer facilities. You may desire for your offspring the vaunted culture of obedience and the psycho­logical discipline of school uniforms. But your children can’t access it unless you’re an honest-to-god Catholic and can prove it. It’s not quite the Spanish Inquisition, but according to the Toronto Catholic District School Board, prospective families must show a Catholic baptismal certificate for each child. Failing that, the school board requires at least one parent to produce his or her own Catholic baptismal certificate. For non-Catholic parents, the only option is conversion. This means enrolling in a program for aspiring converts at a Catholic church, and of course producing the paperwork.

Alison Buchanan falls into the second category. A single mom with four kids, aged 18, 10, seven and four, she had to present her baptismal certificate so her three youngest could enroll at St. Gabriel Catholic School near Bayview and Sheppard. (Her eldest had been baptized, and the other three have since followed suit.) Buchanan emphasizes she is not at all religious. “I was baptized, but never confirmed,” she says. “I don’t believe in the separate system. It’s better for society if there’s one strong public system.”

She has sent her children to Jewish and regular public schools, too, but has settled on the Catholic system. “We don’t need religion in schools, but my kids are getting advantages being there.” Buchanan especially appreciates St. Gabriel’s intimate size: 350 students from kindergarten to Grade 8, which means only one class for most levels. Other advantages, big and small, include school uniforms, “which make mornings easy,” she says, and religion classes that inject “character education” into her child­ren’s quotidian learning.

There’s a lingering perception that Catholic schools are academically superior to regular public schools, but there’s little evidence to support this. In the C. D. Howe Institute’s latest report on Ontario’s best public schools (released in June), seven of the top 20 schools in the 416 and 905 areas were Catholic. That’s roughly proportionate to the number of Catholic schools versus non-Catholic schools in the region.

Other provinces have changed with the times. In 1998, Newfoundland passed a constitutional amendment establishing a single secular school system after 73 per cent of its residents voted to eliminate funding for separate schools in a referendum. The province moved quickly to take advantage of efficiencies—enlarging school districts, consolidating schools, creating parent advisory councils and holding public elections for school board trustees, who were no longer appointed by the church. Even Quebec, irony of ironies, passed a constitutional amendment in 1997 to end the Catholic-Protestant system. It replaced it with separate systems based on French and English. Whether you think a linguistic divide is progress is beside the point—at least it’s secular.

For its part, Ontario has altered the original deal. For example, in 1985, then-premier Bill Davis extended full funding for Grades 11, 12 and 13, on the condition that Catholic high schools accept non-Catholic students. You can’t have it both ways. If a deal can be tampered with, it can also be quashed. In Ontario, however, the issue remains a political hot potato. During the 2007 provincial election, the backlash was swift when the Conservative leader, John Tory, proposed extending taxpayer funding to other religious schools on the basis that funding only one faith was unfair. Sixty-two per cent of Ontarians opposed Tory’s idea. On the contrary, more than half preferred a single school system to address the inequity.

It’s easy to see why. For thousands of out-of-work teachers who aren’t Catholic, the separate system is off limits. “You need to be an active member of the Catholic church in good standing and be recommended by your parish priest,” says Angela Gauthier, associate director of education for the TCDSB. “It’s an important part of our recruitment process.” By “active,” she means regularly attending Mass and being involved in the life of the church.

McGuinty may be the perfect politician to upend this discriminatory system. He’s only the second Roman Catholic to become premier of Ontario; his wife, Terri, teaches in a Catholic school. He already supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and has declared that extending school funding to other religions would be divisive and “regressive.” Although he has so far sidestepped the issue of Catholic school funding, he could end it by fiat, just as Mike Harris eliminated Grade 13. If he’s too faint-hearted, we could hold a province-wide referendum. Perhaps we can organize a vote for next year—that would be the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris.