Our Talk Back columnists are usually anonymous, but Bruce Patterson asked to be named. He has been an elementary school teacher in the public board for 21 years and lives in Carleton Place, near Ottawa.
Some provinces have stopped paying for religious schools, others maintain them, despite the duplicate costs.
Today, ballooning provincial deficits have forced boards of education to deal with brutal cost-cutting or inadequate funding increases. This means fewer resources supplied through provincial budgets and more individual schools resorting to fundraising.
Across Canada, student enrolment is on the decline. According to Statistics Canada, enrolment in Ontario schools has declined by 90,000 students in the past six years. Since provincial grant money depends on the number of students in the school system, these funds are reduced, yet the cost of maintaining a half-empty school does not go down in proportion.
Duplicate religious school systems, established a century ago in six provinces, compound the student funding problem. Quebec, which had both Roman Catholic and Protestant schools in French and English, eliminated the religious component in 1997 to simplify the organization and save money in the process. Newfoundland, (mainly to reduce costs and religious discrimination), eliminated its denominational school system in January 1998. Both provinces now have efficient secular public schools for all children.
THE STATUS QUO
Despite a United Nations ruling that funding Roman Catholic separate schools constitutes a violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the governments of Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon still fund religious education. Ontario has a public system in French and English and a publicly funded Roman Catholic separate system, also in French and English. These dual systems duplicate buildings and a bureaucracy, as well as require extra busing, with its attendant fuel costs and pollution. Some provinces partially fund private schools, too. While the tuition fees reduce the public dollars required, there remains the community cost of dividing students on the basis of social status and/or religion while reducing the size and efficiency of the public system. With Ontario’s declining enrolment problem, there are now two schools (sometimes on the same block) that are under capacity, instead of just one. Since most Ontario communities have at least one separate school, and declining enrolment means that one school must close, students from the closed school must be bused for as long as an hour to get to the next appropriate school. The families of the closed school have now lost their community focal point. Children who grow up and play together on the same street are divided on the basis of religion when it is time to go to school. This also results in a loss of community.
When I was in high school in Ontario in the early 1980s, most of the teenagers in my small town went to the same public high school. I made life-long friends of all faiths and backgrounds, including Roman Catholic. In 1985, the Ontario government extended public funding of Roman Catholic schools to the end of grade 12. Today in Ontario, children from kindergarten to grade 12 are segregated on the basis of religion, by government decree. That segregation applies to teachers, too. Those who do not subscribe to the Roman Catholic faith are denied employment in separate schools, in violation of our Charter of Rights.
NOT CARVED IN STONE
The exclusive discriminatory full public funding of schools for only one faith group is not carved in stone. It can be changed, as we’ve seen in Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland. Simple justice demands that Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon follow their lead to end government sponsored religious discrimination and therefore bring economic and social cohesion with all children together in one secular public school system, where religion classes, as requested, can take place after school hours.
Published in November 2010.