As I wrote about in my previous post, “Why Bill C-13 Matters”, there has been a great deal of controversy in Ontario surrounding the Liberal government’s bill that would add new anti-bullying practices to Ontario public schools. The controversy has been specifically over Section 303.1, which states that every board will support pupils who want to start student organizations for people that are bullied, making specific mention of sexual orientation and organizations known as gay-straight alliances.

The Catholic School Board and members of the Ontatio Progressive Conservatives (PC) balked at this, with the Catholic School Board stating that this approach forces the Board schools to accept something they believe is against Catholic doctrine. They asked the government to remove any mention of gay-straight alliances, and a PC MPP, Lisa MacLeod, tabled Bill C-14, which proposes similar measures to C-13 without making any mention to sexual orientation.

The controversy grew as the Ontario NDP asked for amendments, including the following amendment to 303.1:

(2) For greater certainty, neither the board nor the principal shall refuse to allow a pupil to use the name gay-straight alliance or a similar name for an organization described in clause

Bill C-13 passed the provincial legislation last week, to a great deal of both applause and frustration. The goal is to have this new legislation in effect in provincial schools by the start of next September’s fall semester.

Part of the issue is that the Catholic School Board favours a top-down approach to teaching, and believes (along with parents) that this bill restrict the parent/teacher/principal role (despite their role being recognized in the legislation). According to a 15-page document released by Board trustees, Catholic clubs are encouraged to have teacher moderators and to designate principals to approve the group’s name and activities. It includes these words:

Student Activities or Organizations are not intended as (a forum) for activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school

At this time the Catholic School Board has signaled that it will not sue the government over this action, but there was a great deal of speculation about legal action before the bill passed, and it seems that it may happen in future, sinking public money into what could become a protracted legal battle.

As well, it seems doubtful the Catholic School Board will respect the new rules. Fred Collie, the Bishop of the Thunder Bay Diocese, made these comments to the Kenora Daily Miner:

Everything we do in our schools, every part of our curriculum, always has a Catholic component to it…We’re going say the Catholic church is not going to endorse or support homosexual lifestyles because we don’t see it as a proper lifestyle or a morally good lifestyle for people.

It begs the question: why does the province of Ontario still support a separate religious school as part of the public system?

The Catholic School Board is a public entity supported by public money, yet takes its utimate leadership from the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican, not the province of Ontario. This means that a branch of the Ontario public school system, with a Vatican-led stance on homosexuality, is in breach of the Canadian Constitution, which guarantees that every Canadian is free from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It’s also worth noting that in 1999 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Canada and the province of Ontario for violating equality provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and and Political Rights. In this 2005 report, the Committee restated its concerns and observed that Canada continued to fail to “adopt steps in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario.”

This issue, however, is much broader than that. I don’t believe that a single ideology or belief system should be taught at a public school as the “correct” one, to the exclusion of all others, regardless what that belief is. If parents want their children to be educated from a particular perspective they have every right to do so, but I don’t believe that this type of exclusive education should occur in the public school system. This is why I advocate for a single public school board for our province, without religious affiliation.

There are a variety of reasons to do this:

One of the arguments for continuing the Catholic School Board is that it provides an alternative to parents who don’t want to send their children to a private school yet want their children to receive a religious upbringing. I don’t believe it is fair for one religious perspective (Roman Catholic) to be supported on public money to the exclusion of all others. Ontario has many different belief perspectives/traditions, and though Roman Catholic is the largest denomination in Ontario (with 34% of Ontario identifying themselves as RC in 2001), it shouldn’t have special standing above all others (the beliefs of the other 66% of Ontario). For education equality, we should have one board.

However, I don’t believe this should mean that the entire Ontario public system teaches only secular ideas. I believe all religious perspectives could and should be available to students who want to study them. The Catholic School Board states that they are a “vital component of the province’s publicly funded education system” and the diversity it brings is part of what makes our system so successful.

I believe the opposite. I am proud of our public school system, but believe it could be so much better.

I believe that this merger would lead to a stronger system by creating a more unified, inclusive education structure and provide a more varied education to all Ontario students. By merging school boards and thereby students, teachers, buildings etc., all public school students would have more resources at their disposal. Instead of positioning our students in secular vs. religious schools, they would meet students with more varied perspectives and make more topics available for study.

Ontario Green Party Leader, Mike Schreiner, puts it this way:

We need to merge the best of the Catholic and public system into one publicly funded education system, French and English.

I also believe that this merger should happen for financial reasons, and should be an easy sell particularly to the Ontario PC in this regard as it would help lower the province’s deficit. Although this issue was avoided by the Drummond Report, it would help the public school system operate much more efficiently. I find it completely unacceptable that the province operates separate sets of schools with their own boards regardless of inefficiencies, especially considering the financial state that the province is in. A move to merge the public and Catholic school boards (starting with the management of the boards, and moving downwards to give the school systems time to adjust to the changes) would be a practical, achievable step in lowering the public cost of education in the province.

Mike Schreiner says it so well:

The public wants to have a conversation about whether it’s appropriate that we fund one religious school to the exclusion of all others. That’s an equity issue. It’s a fairness issue. It’s a fiscal responsibility issue. And, at the end of the day, it’s a quality-of-education issue.