Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Public money & Separate schools in Ontario

Publicly funded religious (mostly Catholic) schools in Canada are called "separate schools," or as Wikipedia would define them, as publicly funded schools with religious education embedded in its curriculum. While most religion oriented schools in Canada no longer receive public funds, my home province of Ontario is an unfortunate exception to this where the Catholic school system receives complete funding from public money. My objection to this has nothing to do with Catholocism, and everything to do with equality and the removal of government sponsored discrimination based on religion.

I would not be nearly as uptight about this if other faiths got their fare share of the pie - but they do not. While several private Muslim, Jewish, and schools of other Christian denominations exist, they all have to fund their operations through the collection of tuition/membership/user fees and alumni donations. In this multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious melting pot of a social experiment we have in Canada where equal opportunity is supposedly what we're promoting - Catholic schools should not be given an easier ride than the others. The United Nations has my back on this one too, as their Human Rights Committee has repeatedly chastised Ontario's Ministry of Education for religous discrimination by funding Catholic separate schools but not other separate schools. For those legal/UN charter buffs, it's the equality provision in Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil & Poilitical Rights which we are violating - a covenant which we as a nation have ratified many years ago.

So why hasn't anything been done about this?

Well popular support isn't really an issue, as several Ontario news polls over the years have shown respondents overwhelmingly favouring a single public school system. The real problem is that the authority for funding Catholic schools goes back to the British North America Act (1867) and to change it would require an ammendment to our constitution - which is a bloody annoying, difficult and lengthy process. As such, I don't believe there has ever been serious effort to ammend it. Some lawmakers are vehemently opposed to opening up the constitution for, well, anything - but there are issues for which it is both wise & where the government leading the charge won't pay a heavy political price. I'm pretty sure this is one of those issues, and I would love to see a proper referendum occur on this in Ontario (similar to Newfoundland's of 1997).

So what would I like to see happen? At the root of it all - just something fair. I'm not die hard in saying that public money shouldn't go towards religous education - but favouring one is plain wrong and if we're gonna do it we gotta open the door for sharing the wealth. One creative alternative option could be to do as British Columbia (BC) has done, where public money still supports some separate schools - just in a more equitable manner. BC has developed a strict set of provincial curriculum & behaviour standards for religious schools, and those who meet said standards are eligible to receive government funds for up to 50% of their operational costs. In addition to Catholic schools, BC also has Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and Jewish schools who receive public funds under this policy. Even though I would personally prefer tax dollars financing one public school system for Ontario as that which exists in most provinces - fairness is what's ultimately important here and I would not oppose something like what exists in BC as it is both fair and non-discriminatory.
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