We Went to Separate Schools Together

Today’s Ottawa Citizen has a good editorial on the existence of two publicly-funded school systems in several provinces. The original concept of one system for Protestants and another for Catholics has evolved into a “public”, secular system and a “separate” system that teaches some Roman Catholicism but is also attended by many non-Catholics.

Many schools cannot afford needed supplies, many parents must chip in extra money for field trips and extracurricular activities, and many teachers are paid low wages. Given these strains, it seems odd to spend public-education dollars maintaining two different but parallel sets of administrative and physical structures.

When I was a lad, schools were overflowing into portable classrooms set up in trailers. The gains from combining the “public” and “separate” systems were not apparent, since both systems were operating at full capacity. However, demographics have changed. As the Citizen notes, we now the face the prospect of half-empty “public” schools operating beside (often, right beside) half-empty “separate” schools.

The Citizen legitimately argues that religion has no place in publicly-funded schools. However, I would be quite happy to see optional courses on Roman Catholicism (and other religions) offered in public schools if the provision of such courses allowed the two systems to merge.

An obsolete privilege

The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Friday, April 13, 2007

. . .

Ontario should reconsider its dual system, and the sooner the better. Declining enrolment means all schools are competing for students. In some neighbourhoods, the dual system could result in two half-empty schools instead of one full one. That’s inefficient use of public resources.

More important, the dual system is wrong in principle. It is no longer necessary for Ontario to protect a Catholic minority, for the simple reason that the public school system no longer serves a Protestant majority. It is a secular system that serves families of all backgrounds and beliefs. In that context, public funding for Roman Catholic schools is bizarre. If such a system did not exist, would we invent it now? Why Catholic schools and not Evangelical, Jewish or Muslim schools?

John Tory, Ontario’s leader of the Opposition, has spoken in favour of tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools. That would mitigate the unfair treatment of minority religions, but not eliminate it.

Defenders of this unique Catholic privilege say they want their children to learn traditional values. It’s understandable that some devout parents would be nervous about sending their children into a secular world, but it isn’t the role of a public school system to shape the belief systems of children anyway. Teachers can instil and should instil values of tolerance, respect and courtesy. They can keep students safe and healthy. But as to whether God exists or whether premarital sex is immoral — those are questions schools can and should leave to parents.

Parents who want their children to learn religion along with reading, writing and arithmetic should be able to send their children to religious schools, so long as those schools meet provincial standards. The dual public school system goes beyond school choice, however. It is equivalent to a state sanction for a particular faith.

In the 1990s, Quebec and Newfoundland obtained Constitutional amendments to eliminate their religion-based school systems. It doesn’t have to be a difficult process; all that’s required is an understanding that times have changed. A law intended to protect minority rights has itself become discriminatory.

The public school system should be teaching children that Canada is a place of equality and fairness, where the state does not favour some religions over others.

For the full editorial, click here.


  • As a product of the Catholic school system, I can view this a number of ways. The main thought I have, though, is that what made the difference for me wasn’t the fact I got a Catholic education but that most of my classmates shared a common ethical code. This was especially useful when my parents were breaking up in high school — it became a huge source of comfort that many of my classmates came from broken homes and even half the staff were divorced themselves.

    In retrospect, I don’t think I would have fared any differently in a non-denominational system. And if Quebec and Newfoundland have seen fit to deconfessionalize their schools, there’s really no reason why Ontario can’t do the same.

    Some parents might fight back and just decide to home school — like a couple of friends of mine in Quebec, evangelicals, after that province made its move; but people are opting out of “the system” all the time and will continue to do so whether or not there are religious schools and / or credit courses.

    Tax credits aren’t the answer, though. Teaching respect is.

  • This is never gonna happen anytime soon and here is why:

    90% of Franco-Ontarians attend Catholic schools.

    Eliminating Catholic schools will be seen as an attack on minority language charter rights and will by fought against very strongly.

    The Liberals have a lock on the Franco vote; they don’t want to lose it.

    The PCs like the Catholic system because of it promotes traditional values, offers an alternative and some degree of competition in the system and lastly the it is very fiscally responsible compared to the public system.

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