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Religious schools and the meaning of diversity

The Protestant supremacism of Orange Ontario is alive and well and cloaked in the sheep’s costume called secular humanism. This is the conclusion I have drawn from absorbing the vehement reactions in the public and the press against John Tory’s proposal to fund religious schools in Ontario, which to my way of thinking falls within Canada’s best traditions of encouraging diversity and tolerance.

Full disclosure: I was raised Catholic, though I no longer practice, and I lived in both Quebec and Alberta before settling here. Since I moved to Ontario in 2000, I have been repeatedly surprised by people’s lingering mistrust of the Catholic school system. Many have complained idly to me about the existence of Catholic schools, apropos of nothing, with no prompting whatsoever, pronouncing their view as though it were basic common sense on which we all agree. (The conversations have sometimes reminded me of the way my grandfather, who was raised in rural Quebec at the turn of the 20th century and was therefore steeped in anti-semitic brine as a kid, would complain about Jews whenever conversation seemed to lag, assuming we all thought the same way he did.) Even Ontarians who know their history — who know that minority-education guarantees for Protestants in Quebec and for Catholics elsewhere have been enshrined in our Constitution since Confederation—characterize it as a dirty compromise that should never have been made. John Barber in today’s Globe is the latest to express this view, calling the Catholic system’s existence “regrettable.”

I would argue that minority education rights were in fact the first great Canadian policy to promote diversity and tolerance, the precursor to the Official Languages Act and Multiculturalism. At the time of Confederation the mistrust between Catholics and Protestants ran deep—I presume we all remember the tripe about “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state” from history class—and the issue had the potential to be a deal-breaker. It was inconceivable to many that the two denominations could function together. Minority education guarantees were the policy innovation that made Canada possible. (There’s a lengthy tangent that I could insert here about how the Catholic system has evolved, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Today, six provinces have already taken the step of funding faith-based schools, but Ontario, still seething over the Catholic schools in its midst, continues to balk at the idea. This debate puts the lie to Toronto’s self-mythology about tolerance: we celebrate diversity that is a mile wide but no more than an inch deep. With open arms we welcome different skin colours, accents, and traditions, and we’ll gladly savour meat on a stick from every country in the world. But we prefer not to celebrate those aspects of difference that reach towards the core of our being, especially when it comes to how our religious beliefs intersect with the way we teach our children. And we certainly won’t support such things with tax dollars.

Given that diversity runs deeper than most people would like, Tory’s proposal makes good public policy. It would ensure that all kids in Ontario are taught and tested on the same curriculum, and that their teachers are certified. It would give faith-based schools a stake in the health of our public education system by bringing them under the auspices of existing school boards. Ideally, the boards would come to serve as a forum for communities of faith to talk openly about how and what they want to teach their kids. Clerics call this sort of inter-faith dialogue “ecumenical relations,” which is something the world will always need more of. And you get none of it if you insist upon a quaintly Soviet policy of universal secular education that forces kids to check their religious heritage at the schoolhouse door.

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