At the Conservative policy conference in Niagara Falls on Feb. 20, Ontario Conservative Party Leader John Tory reignited debate over the public funding of Catholic schools in Ontario when he introduced his 2007 election campaign “that addresses the fairness issue for independent schools.” While he did not commit to restoring the $3,500 tax credit introduced by Mike Harris to given to families who are paying for their children to attend private, religiously-affiliated schools, he did not completely discount it.
According to The Globe and Mail, “he said the party still has to work out details such as whether money would be given to the parents or directly to the religious schools, but indicated families who use non-religious private schools may not qualify for any proposed assistance.”
While it is good that Tory is acknowledging that it is not fair to favour one faith with public dollars over another, the idea of giving a tax break to all families who use private schools—many of whom are not in financial need—seems less likely to promote equality of opportunity and more likely to foster the image that the public school system is a tax burden.
The initial establishment of this two-pronged education system was done in order to appease the Roman Catholic population in Canada, who would not enter into confederation until there was a guarantee that the Catholic school system would be protected.
However, that was in 1866, some 140 years ago. The agreement was made when the majority of the population was Christian. These days, Canada has become a multicultural patchwork of many people of different faiths and it is clear the Ontario school system only represents one piece of this patchwork.
In November 2005, the UN called for Canada to “eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario,” following a complaint filed in 1996 by a Jewish parent who sent his child to a private Hebrew school.
Government use of taxpayers’ money to fund the separate school system only benefits the Catholic population in Ontario. In order to be completely equitable, funding should be provided to all schools of all denominations. This, however, is not practical considering the multitude of faiths represented in the province. As such, plans should be put into place to gradually phase out the two redundant school systems in favour of one larger public one. And while this will inevitably be difficult, considering how long the system has been in place and the strength of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, it is still a necessary change that needs to happen.
At the same time, it is clear that many students and parents of all faiths are interested in religious education. To provide it in an equitable manner, the government should consider offering various religion courses in public schools for example, providing all students with the opportunity to learn and embrace their faiths. The demographics of each public school’s surrounding community could also be considered in deciding the courses offered.
Eliminating an overlapping and increasingly inadequate religious public school system need not mean creating a raft of cookie cutter, aggressively secular public schools. The government and school boards must simply be prepared to be flexible in recognizing diversity and in truly accommodating faith.