One issue is too hot for all Ontario parties, except the Greens -- denominational schools

Photo: Flickr

The Canadian federal government has almost nothing to do with education. Ottawa is responsible for education in First Nations communities, and that’s it. As for all other public schools and universities, the constitution assigns them, exclusively, to the provinces.

There is one circumstance, however, where the federal government has a key role to play in this jealously guarded provincial jurisdiction. If provinces wish to abolish constitutionally guaranteed denominational school systems -- that is, systems based on religion -- they must get the agreement of the parliament in Ottawa.

In the 1990s, Quebec and Newfoundland both sought, and received, the federal parliament’s accord to get rid of their religious-based school systems and replace them with, in each case, a single, secular system.

Both provinces were motivated by cost and efficiency, although Quebec had an additional preoccupation. That province’s French language charter, Law 101, made it obligatory for the children of immigrants to attend French schools. Most immigrants were not Roman Catholics, but most French language schools were. That anomaly led to a movement to secularise the school system.

It took a while for the Quebec government to act, but it finally did, about two decades after it passed Law 101. Today there are only linguistic, French and English, school boards in Quebec. Catholic and Protestant schools are a distant memory.

Ontario is out of step

Oddly, Canada’s largest province, Ontario, has not seen fit to follow the Newfoundland and Quebec example.

There are still Catholic (euphemistically called ‘separate’) and public English school boards and separate and public French school boards throughout Ontario. It is an awkward, cumbersome and expensive system, which might have made sense in the 19th century, but is entirely archaic in 2018.

For some inexplicable reason, all major Ontario political parties consider a reform that Newfoundland and Quebec managed to implement without too much difficulty about two decades ago to be too hot to handle. Only the Green party in Ontario advocates the commonsense idea of abolishing denominational schools, and the Greens are not likely to win even a single seat in the coming Ontario election.

The costly persistence of denominational school boards just might be a sleeper issue in the coming election.

On Thursday, CBC radio in Ontario interviewed some citizens who had attended the leaders’ debate organized by the black community -- a debate Conservative leader Doug Ford skipped (because, as he put it, he loves the black community and they love him in return).  One black community activist who is also a mother, and very concerned about education, told CBC she appreciated the Green party leader’s position in favour of streamlining the education system. 

It is possible she is not alone.

Back in Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s time, the Ontario government missed a golden opportunity to, at the very least, open a public dialogue on denominational schools when it hired economist Don Drummond to recommend ways to trim the provincial budget.

It would be possible for Ontario to realize big savings by consolidating school boards, as they did in Quebec, but the Liberal government told Drummond the existing system was sacrosanct. Changing the denominational system was off the table.

In his 2012 report, Don Drummond called for sweeping public service cuts across the board, but, as instructed, he omitted a major administrative reform that could have helped save jobs and resources for classroom education.

A revealing exchange

One Ontario parent tried, over the past few years, to convince key members of the current Ontario Liberal government to consider reforming the current wasteful and out-dated denominational system.

To her member of the provincial parliament (MPP) this parent wrote:

“Not only is maintaining the status quo costly - too costly in this era of cuts to important services – it is also out of date and undemocratic. Yes, it will be politically tricky. But if Quebec, with a larger Catholic population, was able to see the wisdom of modernizing to a secular education system, then Ontario residents and citizens should be able to understand. I am waiting in vain for a politician to have the guts to do this.”

Her member’s answer consisted of evasive boilerplate.

“Ontario has a long history of providing publicly-funded Catholic Schools. It is part of our heritage and is codified in the Constitution,” he wrote, and then proceeded to explain how politically difficult it would be to change the system.

“In order to introduce a one-school system in Ontario,” the MPP argued, “our government would have to seek a constitutional amendment and both the Legislature of Ontario and the Parliament of Canada would have to authorize the amendment  …The concept of a single school system for Ontario would also necessitate amendments to our Education Act. These are significant changes that could not occur without the strong support of the federal government.”

Translation: If the Ontario were to tackle the denominational system it would require some hard work and the cooperation of the federal government.

In the Quebec case, the Chrétien Liberal government happily collaborated with the Parti Québecois government in Quebec to make the change happen.  It is hard to imagine that two, closely allied Liberal governments in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park could not similarly cooperate.

The same Ontario parent then tried the Ontario Minister of Education.

“I wonder,” she wrote, “when Ontario will take a serious look at the risks and costs of ghettoizing our children along religious lines. I look around and see truly public institutions - community centres and libraries. We would consider it foolish and laughable if libraries were organized on religious lines, the way we organize our schools. Imagine two systems of libraries  - one system for Catholics and another system for other religious groups, all paid for out of the public purse. Absurd!”

Again, the government responded with patronizing and self-congratulatory platitudes.

“The Education Act requires both public and Catholic school boards to promote student achievement and well-being by providing safe, inclusive and accepting learning environments,” Education Minister Indira Naidoo-Harris wrote. Then she too proceeded with the history lesson: “Denominational schools in Ontario were part of the agreement that created Canada in 1867.”

The minister was anxious to point out that she was mindful of the issue of waste and duplication. She wanted her interlocutor to know that the government was, in fact, trying to tackle that issue -- without, of course, changing the system.

“The Ministry of Education continues to work with school boards to use education funding in a way that makes the most of our resources,” Harris wrote. “The ministry and boards have taken a variety of steps to reduce duplication, improve efficiency, and encourage co-operation among school boards.”

The frustrated parent could not hold herself back from replying to this evasive political pabulum.

“With due respect, I do not believe that the Minister understood my letter, “ she wrote. “I did not question the constitutionality of the current system. What I do question is why - when other jurisdictions in the Canadian Confederation have modernized their education systems to reflect our current ethnic realities, all the while respecting the provisions of the original Confederation deal, the BNA Act of 1867, through mechanisms of amendment - Ontario, the largest province in population and the most diverse in terms of religion and ethnic origins, stays stubbornly wedded to the deal of 1867.”

The minister chose to end the conversation there and then and did not reply. 

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