Toronto Star

Must end publicly funded Catholic schooling in Ont.

- KELLY GALLAGHER-MACKAY Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is a professor of law and society at Wilfrid Laurier University with a focus on educationa­l inequality.

This month the Halton Catholic Trustees voted to ban student fundraisin­g “directly or indirectly” inconsiste­nt with Catholic teachings around the sanctity of life.

Logically, that means no fundraisin­g for Sick Kids hospital — no stem cell research — or for the United Way, which funds Planned Parenthood.

If this were a private school, this resolution would be an expression of religious freedom and the state should get out of the way.

But Halton Catholic District School Board is publicly funded. Under the Canadian Constituti­on denominati­onal schools (Catholic schools in Ontario) enjoy the “same rights and privileges,” including full funding, as public schools.

The status quo requires public funds to be used to promote a religious agenda — but only one. We’re overdue to change this discrimina­tory and unequal situation.

In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared Ontario’s practice of funding Catholic education to the exclusion of other religions discrimina­tory.

The UN’s power is limited to persuasion. Nothing changed.

Canadian Courts normally have the power to require government­s to correct discrimina­tory laws. The courts have acknowledg­ed this would normally include religious privileges enjoyed by Catholic schools. But the Charter of Rights includes a loophole to protect separate schools’ “rights and privileges” from the normal requiremen­ts of Charter scrutiny, because they were part of the original constituti­onal bargain in 1867.

At Confederat­ion, Catholics in Upper Canada were a vulnerable minority and to join Canada on a secure basis, their rights needed to be guaranteed against the Protestant majority.

Obviously, things have changed since 1867. Catholics are the largest religious group in Ontario.

We have a diverse population in which almost a quarter of people have no reli- gious affiliatio­n, and another 12 per cent of all Ontarians belong to other faiths. Canada’s identity is multicultu­ral. In all other areas of public services, government­s are bound by values of equality.

Surprising­ly, the constituti­onal change required to remedy this inequality is not legally difficult. Changing the constituti­onal protection of Catholic education in Ontario is governed by section 43 of the Constituti­on, which requires only a resolution be passed by both Queen’s Park and Parliament.

Quebec and Newfoundla­nd have already passed those resolution­s and ended religious funding, with support from Parliament.

In Quebec, the legislatur­e voted unanimousl­y to end funding, and in Newfoundla­nd a referendum saw 73 per cent of the population vote to stop funding denominati­onal schools.

Apart from the ongoing inequity of letting a powerful religious group have unequal benefit of the law in one of our most important government services, shaping children’s minds, the time for a change is now more than ever.

This month, we’ve learned that more than 8 per cent of students attending Catholic schools in Ontario aren’t Catholic. Last year, the Human Rights Tribunal held that non-Catholics could not be made to attend religious instructio­n when they attend Catholic school. In Toronto, Catholic schools are busing students short distances, apparently to boost enrolment.

At this point, Catholic schooling has become a part of the architectu­re of school choice in the province — and it may be contributi­ng to social stratifica­tion across publicly funded systems.

Research from Scott Davies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has shown that children attending Catholic schools are more likely to have parents with post-secondary education; data collected by EQAO shows that, in the GTAH Catholic schools boards have fewer students with special education needs and vastly fewer students whose first language learned at home was not English.

We should eliminate this anachronis­tic arrangemen­t because it’s right. But let’s also not forget that funding separate Catholic schools adds substantia­lly to the cost of public education.

The Drummond report on potential efficienci­es for government declined to calculate the extra cost of running parallel, publicly funded school boards.

The non-profit Federation of Urban Neighbourh­oods estimates that reduction in governance and administra­tive duplicatio­n, busing, and capital funding, as well as “efficienci­es,” would result in annual savings between $1.2 and $1.6 billion.

Election season approaches. It’s time for Ontario politician­s to stand up for equality in public education.

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