Catholic Schools At Issue in Canada

The leading issue in the provincial election campaign in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, is the government funding of religious schools.

TORONTO — Government funding of Catholic schools is a constitutional requirement in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario. In fact, the province boasts four distinct publicly funded school systems — English secular, French secular, English Catholic and French Catholic.

But despite the long-standing arrangement, campaign rhetoric currently being presented by the province’s Liberal premier, Dalton McGuinty, is calling into question the government’s long-term commitment to Catholic-school funding.

The secularist stance adopted by McGuinty — a pro-abortion Catholic who has served as Ontario premier since 2003 — is part of a larger debate over the funding of all religious schools, a subject that surprisingly has emerged as the most contentious issue in the campaign leading up to the province’s Oct. 10 general election.

About 625,000 students are enrolled in the province’s Catholic schools, representing 32% of all publicly-funded students. Their schools receive about $6 billion in capital and operational funding, one-third of the province’s total school budget.

In the run-up to the current campaign, John Tory, leader of the province’s second-ranked Conservative party, said his party would fund all independent religious schools, which currently enroll 53,000 students, as long as they adopt the provincial curriculum. The plan would cost $400 million a year.

The pledge didn’t figure to be all that contentious; before he became premier, McGuinty himself had supported the general idea. But in August, the premier characterized the policy as divisive.

“It’s about the kind of Ontario you want,” he told reporters. “If you want the kind of Ontario where we invite children of different faiths to leave the publicly-funded system and become sequestered and segregated in their own private schools, then vote for Mr. Tory.”

McGuinty also called the plan “regressive.”

Catholic Implications

The public seems to be buying the Liberal line; the Liberals and Conservatives were in a virtual dead heat in public-opinion polls at the beginning of the summer, but by early September McGuinty’s party was five points ahead, according to an Ipsos-Reid poll.

On the funding question, 62% opposed extending full funding to Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or similar schools; moreover, 53% supported merging the Catholic and secular systems.

The latter finding worries Catholics, especially given that McGuinty’s rhetoric, extended to its logical conclusion, argues against continued funding of Catholic schools. Many critics have labeled McGuinty a hypocrite because he graduated from a Catholic school, his wife teaches in the Catholic system and his children attend Catholic schools.

“I think to call Catholic schools, or any religious school for that matter, segregationist is just a little bit inflammatory,” said Joanne McGarry, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League in Toronto. “Okay, you may agree with religious school funding or you may not. But it’s just ridiculous to say it’s segregationist. … Yes, we do think some of the rhetoric is over the top.”

Tory was not available for comment, but his spokesman, Mike Van Soelen, said he is “shocked” by “some of the language” McGuinty is using. Moreover, he agreed the premier’s rhetoric places a cloud over Catholic school funding.

Said Van Soelen, “It certainly is a question the Liberal government should answer.”

A spokesman for McGuinty said the premier intends to maintain the current funding system and “has no interest in getting involved in a constitutional discussion about it.”

In a statement provided by his office, McGuinty said, “My focus is to continue to improve the current system in Ontario. That is what we have done over the past four years. I think that is what Ontario parents want us to continue doing.”

Ontario Bishops

Nevertheless, Catholic schools in both Quebec and Newfoundland once enjoyed constitutional protection but saw the status revoked in the 1990s. Consequently, Ontario’s Catholic bishops are monitoring the campaign debate closely.

In a Sept. 7 statement, the Ontario Catholic Bishops Conference reaffirmed a 1989 policy statement in support of public funding of schools for other religions.

“The primacy of parental rights in education is a value which should be realized not only by Catholic parents but also by others,” the 1989 statement said. “We have publicly committed ourselves to support the concept of the development of alternative schools for people of other faith communities.”

“The current reality is that none of the three main parties, Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic, has proposed eliminating funding for Catholic education,” said Neil MacCarthy, director of communication for the Archdiocese of Toronto. “But certainly we want to stay on top of it and do all that we can to continue to stress the importance of Catholic education in our province.”

Parent’s View

A Catholic education is important to Prescott, Ontario, parent Helen McIndoe, who has seen two of her children graduate from Catholic high schools and currently has a third enrolled at St. Mary’s Elementary School in nearby Brockville.

“I think the difference is they’re taught morals and values,” McIndoe said. “I don’t quite think they learn the same things in the public [secular] system. But in a Catholic school, they do learn about family values and what’s right and what’s wrong — maybe not according to everybody, but according to Catholic values. They learn about how to operate as a human being.”

Terry O’Neill is based in

Vancouver, British Columbia.