De­nom­i­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion — the great di­vide

The Beacon (Gander) - - Editorial - Bob Wake­ham Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com

First as a vul­ner­a­ble and naive stu­dent in the 1950s and early ‘60s, then as a cu­ri­ous jour­nal­ist in the late ‘80s, and fi­nally, ul­ti­mately and most im­por­tantly, as a voter in 1997: that’s how I re­call my re­la­tion­ship with New­found­land’s de­nom­i­na­tional sys­tem on the 20th an­niver­sary this month of the long over­due vote by a ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in the prov­ince to scrap a divisive, ar­chaic and ex­pen­sive sys­tem that had fos­tered re­li­gious big­otry here for cen­turies.

I was able to make choices on those last two en­coun­ters with re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion. But on the first, grow­ing up in Gan­der, there was ab­so­lutely no talk of op­tions, since I was part of a Catholic fam­ily, and my par­ents — scrupu­lous ad­her­ents to pa­pal dogma (any diver­sion put them at risk of a one-way trip to perdi­tion on a train with Lu­cifer him­self at the throt­tle) — knew they had to dis­patch their off­spring to the lo­cal R.C. school.

Not that I had the ma­tu­rity to ques­tion whether this was a good thing or not.

Al­though, I did won­der at times why just about all of my friends were Catholic, and why my only real Protes­tant bud­dies, the “blacks” who at­tended the “amal­ga­mated” school, were, for the most part, those who hap­pened to live near us on Balbo Street.

It was re­li­gious seg­re­ga­tion, pure and sim­ple; a prac­tice that be­longed in the Dark Ages.

And it taught us big­otry: “There were Catholics,” as the bril­liant co­me­dian Ge­orge Car­lin would point out in re­mem­ber­ing his own up­bring­ing, “and then there were the nonCatholics.”

The in­fer­ence was ob­vi­ous: we were bet­ter than those evil Protes­tants, and had an in­side track on the race to heaven.

(I in­no­cently in­sulted a teenage babysit­ter, an un­for­tu­nate Protes­tant, one evening as she helped me with my home­work by declar­ing in evan­gel­i­cal style, or at least as much style as could be gen­er­ated by a 12 year old, that the “Catholic Church is the one true Church.” That de­nun­ci­a­tion of her be­lief sys­tem has stayed in my mem­ory bank for­ever, per­haps be­cause she po­litely told me that “all Churches feel that way” — the first time I had ever heard that sort of “blas­phemy.”)

Back then, I was also too young, too naive, to won­der why we were reg­u­larly pa­raded from the class­room to an in­tim­i­dat­ing and fright­en­ing dark room called “The Con­fes­sional” to rat­tle off our “sins”; we were ob­vi­ously a real sin­ful lot in Grades 3 and 4, guilty of such de­spi­ca­ble acts as not say­ing our “good­night prayers.”

When we moved to the States from New­found­land in the early ’60s, my par­ents left be­hind the sys­tem that al­lowed de­nom­i­na­tions to run their schools with pub­lic money, and were ob­li­gated to pay what I’m sure was a hefty sum to en­rol us in Catholic schools — forced, I’m sure, by their own strict up­bring­ing and brain­wash­ing to keep us, at least ini­tially, in class­rooms run by re­li­gious or­ders.

Iron­i­cally, the sin­gle mem­ber of the Wake­ham off­spring to ad­here to Catholi­cism into adult­hood and parent­hood was the only one of us to at­tend pub­lic schools through­out her en­tire ed­u­ca­tion, never to have seen the in­side of a Catholic school, a telling and sig­nif­i­cant fact; she ac­tu­ally had a chance to think for her­self.

The next time I dealt di­rectly with the whole de­nom­i­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion is­sue was in the late ’80s when, as pro­ducer of the CBC cur­rent af­fairs pro­gram “On Cam­era,” I — along with host Bill Gille­spie — de­cided we would com­mis­sion a poll on how New­found­lan­ders felt about the pub­lic fund­ing of re­li­gious schools.

For years, politi­cians in New­found­land had op­er­ated with a yel­low streak a mile long, fright­ened to po­lit­i­cal death to even broach the no­tion that a pub­lic school sys­tem be put in place, re­li­gious lead­ers con­tin­u­ing to play an in­or­di­nately and ob­scenely in­flu­en­tial role in the leg­isla­tive af­fairs of the prov­ince.

How­ever, there was a change in the wind, and we de­cided a poll would be ap­pro­pri­ate. (It wasn’t easy to pull off, given the fact that news agen­cies and poll­sters weren’t con­nected back then as they are now, but some vo­cif­er­ous back-and­forth be­tween me and the pow­ers that be in Toronto, and the co-op­er­a­tion and sup­port of lo­cal CBC man­age­ment, fi­nally gave “On Cam­era” the OK to pro­ceed).

The poll showed that a ma­jor­ity of New­found­lan­ders wanted to ditch de­nom­i­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion, that they were will­ing to force re­li­gions to re­lin­quish their ex­pen­sive and big­otry­laden, seg­re­ga­tion-laden stran­gle­hold on ed­u­ca­tion.

And I’m sure most teach­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, were ea­ger to have the in­fa­mous “morals clause” dis­ap­pear, an in­cred­i­ble and sick­en­ing vi­o­la­tion of ba­sic hu­man rights that al­lowed re­li­gious school boards to fire teach­ers if, for in­stance, they mar­ried a di­vorced man or woman or were liv­ing com­mon­law.

I don’t know if that “On Cam­era” pro­gram had any in­flu­ence on the politi­cians of the day — im­mod­esty and ego lead me to believe it did — but the bot­tom line was that 20 years ago this month, Brian Tobin, Roger Grimes and com­pany brought about the ref­er­en­dum on de­nom­i­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion.

And I had an of­fi­cial, for­mal op­por­tu­nity to have my say in the bal­lot box, along with thou­sands of other New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans.

Wanna guess how I voted?

It was re­li­gious seg­re­ga­tion, pure and sim­ple; a prac­tice that be­longed in the Dark Ages.

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