Views / Opinion

Canada's publicly funded religious schools have to go

The process could be easier than you might think.

File -- A photo taken on July 1, 2010 shows a teacher cleaning a blackboard under a crucifix in a classroom of a school in Viterbo, Italy.

TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

File -- A photo taken on July 1, 2010 shows a teacher cleaning a blackboard under a crucifix in a classroom of a school in Viterbo, Italy.

Every year, usually at a holiday event, I get into a debate with family or friends on one of three topics: politics, religion or money. It usually ends with my grandfather throwing up his hands at my liberalism, my dad lovingly lecturing me about my lack of money sense,  and everyone, mostly, keeping their thoughts to themselves on religion or at least my lack thereof. 

For Canadians, all three of these untouchable topics merge to create the fuel that keeps the debate burning about publicly funded Catholic schools. It’s time to put out the fire. Publicly funded religious schools have to go. And the process could be easier than you might think.

The most common argument for the continuation of this particular Canadian tradition boils down to: The Constitution says so.

In fact, only three provinces still constitutionally require separate funding for Catholic schools: Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. (B.C. funds religious schools of many denominations, but to a lesser degree than public secular schools).

Those who say we cannot, or should not, stop funding Catholic schools because of our constitutional obligation are forgetting a key thing.

The Constitution’s central document — more specifically section 93 the Constitution Act of 1867, also called the British North America Act — gives provinces the right to make laws governing education. It forbids provincial laws from “prejudicially” affecting the schooling rights of religious minorities, if such groups are identified in the province’s founding documents. Such documents, including the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act, can be changed. 

The procedure for this type of amendment is laid out in section 43 of the 1982 Constitution Act. It requires the approval of the House of Commons, the Senate, and, crucially, only the province or provinces that the change affects.

In Ontario the procedure would be basically the same. The provincial and federal legislatures would have to agree to the change, and a line would be added to section 93 stating that the separate-school rules don’t apply to Ontario. 

There’s no reason to think the feds wouldn’t go along with this. They green-lit Quebec’s move to do the exact same thing in 1999.

In no case  would fractious, multi-province constitutional negotiations, Meech-Lake-style, be required. However, Alberta requires all constitutional amendments be put to a public vote before they’re voted on in the legislature. A pain, but it’s not impossible.

Which is good. Because it needs to be done. Publicly funded Catholic schools are unfair to Canada’s many other religious groups and cultures. Funding all religious schools equally would be a logistical nightmare, and in my view, public services should be affirmatively secular.

Why are public schools in the religious-education game at all?

And as should be apparent to anyone who has been following the news for the past year, some Catholic schools’ boards, trustees, teachers and advising clergy have a record of discriminatory, socially regressive efforts to hinder advances made in the interest of student safety and learning.

In Alberta there’s Calgary’s Bishop Fred Henry (schools’ gay-straight alliances are “anti-Catholic” and “totalitarian”) and Catholic opposition to the (cancer preventing!) HPV vaccine being given in school. 

With recent struggles to get an LGBTQ education policy approved in Alberta, why don’t we just ask students if they think the Catholic boards have their best interests at heart? 

And in Ontario there was opposition from Catholic leaders to the much-needed, recently updated sex-education curriculum. 

That deficit-plagued province recently asked voters for ideas online for ways it could save money in its budget. Here’s an idea: According to a 2012 report from the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods, merging Ontario’s Catholic and public school boards would save the province more than $1 billion.

The premier has always pooh-poohed the proposal, but apparently not for fear of a public-opinion backlash, which may have been a real concern in past years. 

A Forum poll from last July found 51 per cent of Ontario voters want to end public funding of Catholic schools. Just 38 per cent want to continue it.

Forum Research President Dr. Lorne Bozinoff wrote: “We have tracked this issue for several years … If it were ever put to a public referendum, Catholic school funding would lose, fair and square.”

All three holdout provinces should be learning by example from their neighbours. Catholic schools had their place in the formation of this country, but they have outlived their relevance. If elected officials won’t do it for the inclusion or equality of all their constituents, they should do it for the money.

Samantha Emann (@Smemann) is a copy editor at Metro.