By David Dias
Ontario’s school system is a joke.
Last May provided an example of how bad the joke has become. When John Snobelen, then Minister of Education, said he would consider scrapping the Catholic school board with the passage of Bill 160, the backlash was fierce. It took Premier Mike Harris less than 24 hours to offer an apology and vow he would never allow such a thing to happen.
For anyone who considers this country the bastion of justice and democracy, it should be surprising that we as Canadians tolerate one of the most blatant examples of religious discrimination anywhere. Of the eight countries in the world that support one religion, Canada is the only one not officially a religious state.
In Ontario, the government funds the Catholic school board, allowing the, special privileges not given to the public school board.
The public school board is required by law to recognize Ontario’s plurality. It is open to all students and cannot hire or fire due to religious denomination. Although public boards may teach about religion, they cannot indoctrinate students in the principles of a particular religion.
Catholic schools, on the other hand, are free to hire or fire on a discriminatory basis. Their purpose is to instill in children the principles of good (homophobic, non-fornicating, anti-abortionist) Catholicism.
In addition, by continuing to fund the Catholic system, the government is promoting a religious form of apartheid. How can children who have been isolated from the values and beliefs of other religions be prepared for life in a pluralistic society?
After all, the pronounced ideals of Catholicism are not the most progressive ideas in the world and certainly not a good representation of life in Toronto. The Catholic church is openly homophobic. It teacher premarital sex and abortion are sins, all contraceptives are frowned upon and that human beings started with Adam and Eve and were created in the Garden of Eden. Some schools have such archaic thinking that they are still hesitant (if not opposed) to teach sex-ed at all.
Upon visiting any Catholic school yard, you will find many of these unsettling ideas amongst the students.
“All I need to know about gays is to stay away from them,” says one of the grade seven students attending St. Mary of the Angel’s Catholic school, whose parents did not want his name mentioned.
Another student, when asked what he know about abortion, was quite descriptive: “They stick a needle in the uterus and inject a poison,” he said. “Then, if they’re premature, they use a vacuum … I learned that last year in school.”
The effects this type of religious segregation can stay with a person even after leaving separate schools.
Mauro Colletti, a first-year engineering student at Ryerson, says before university, he’s never been outside the Catholic school system and because of this has only Catholic friends.
“I’m not as open to other faiths,” admits Colletti.
Colletti says he was never taught anything about sex in school and he regrets wasting a course every year in high school sitting in a religion class. “That’s a [period] out of every year in which I couldn’t take something that I wanted to,” he says.
Looking to section 93(1) of the Constitution Act of 1867 can help explain why Catholics are given preferential treatment. It states Catholics have the right to funding in Ontario, which means that our constitution — which guides the Supreme Court’s rulings — condones religious discrimination.
Larry Diachun, an education officer at the Ministry of Education doesn’t see it that way. “There have always been people jealous of what the Catholics have,” he says.
“Various organizations have questioned, ‘Well, why have the Catholics got this, and why can’t we have the same thing?’ The argument has been that the Catholics have got it in the constitution.”
Policy makers often relieve themselves of responsibility of this obvious double standard by simply pointing on the constitution, as if it cannot be amended. What no one tells you is that this loophole was passed in 1843.
The public is led to believe that policy makers are being swayed by an embarrassingly outdated, 150-year old stipulation formed to appease Catholics living in Quebec.
It all started in 1841, when Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec) united to form the United Province of Canada and as a result shared a common legislature. Since Quebec was predominantly Roman Catholic, whenever laws concerning Catholic privilege arose, Quebec members voted unanimously to support the Catholic separate school boards.
Ironically, Quebec has already started moving away from a denominational system, while here in Ontario, the government seems stuck with these old ideals.
The real reason behind Ontario’s discriminatory practices comes not from some decrepit law, but the simple ability to read demographics. Catholics make up approximately 36 per cent of the votes in Ontario and the politicians know this.
If you were a politician, would you be brave enough to upset 36 per cent of the electorate, even for the sake of equality and justice? Apparently, none of Ontario’s past premiers were. And if last May was any indication, Mike Harris is not going to blaze any trails in that direction either.
Of course, many people don’t see Catholic funding as discrimination. They say Roman Catholics make up more of Ontario than any other religion.
Diachun, of the Ministry of Education, maintains, “If you’re a Catholic, you’re not going to say, ‘This is discrimination, that we get it and they don’t.’ That’s what the agreement was [in 1843].”
But Ontario is not the only province that has had to deal with ridiculously outdated laws.
Other provinces have gone around the problem easily enough. Manitoba stopped giving privileges to Catholics in 1890. Quebec is now switching to a language based system instead of a religiously based one. And Newfoundland simply got around the “constitutional guarantee” by taking the question to the people in a referendum.
In September, Newfoundlanders voted overwhelmingly (73 per cent) in favour of getting rid of more than a century of church-controlled schools. If this is happening in Newfoundland, where the population is much less religiously and culturally diverse, why should it not happen here in Ontario?
Discrimination in Ontario cannot endure indefinitely. Eventually, as minority influence and the pressure for equality increases, the provincial government will have to make a choice. In that choice, the government will decide the type of society in which we will live.
Ontario has two options: either all religions must be funded, resulting in a fragmentation of the system, or funding for Catholics must end, resulting in a unified system where religion plays no role in the education of our children.
Educators should try to create a learning environment free of the prejudices we have all been taught in the past, one in which all children can sit in the same class and maybe even have the freedom to choose their own identity.