The protection of minority Catholic education was a heated topic during Canada’s Confederation debates. One hundred and fifty years later, it’s still with us—although the original argument has since been turned on its head.
Last month, Saskatchewan Queen’s Bench Justice Donald Layh ruled the province’s Catholic education system is in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Specifically, he found the practice of allowing non-Catholics to attend a fully funded separate school system creates an improper taxpayer subsidy for Catholic evangelization. “Allowing one faith group the opportunity, at public expense . . . to model the virtues of its religion to non-members is an advantage that offends the state’s duty to [religious] neutrality,” Layh wrote, pointing to a Muslim school in Regina that is eager to enjoy a similar financial benefit.
This could have a substantial impact on Saskatchewan, as well as Alberta and Ontario, where unbaptized students can similarly attend Catholic schools at public expense. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says he intends to invoke the Constitution’s rarely used “notwithstanding clause” to set aside Layh’s decision—the prospect of having to shift 10,000 students from Catholic to public schools being too great a burden for the provincial school system to bear. The immediate lesson: proposing any sort of change to the ancient traditions of sectarian schooling in Canada is a controversial move with big political consequences. Recall that in 2007 Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory, now mayor of Toronto, was soundly defeated for proposing changes to provincial funding of religious-based education. But what should this mean for the longer term?
Setting aside the political implications, there’s no arguing with Layh’s basic logic. Catholic education was originally given constitutional protection in English Canada because of the threat posed by a dominant Protestant majority’s control over schooling. Such a threat no longer exists; today, public boards are rigorously secular as befits our diverse population. Yet in some provinces Catholic schools continue to receive generous funding denied other denominations. (Quebec and Newfoundland eliminated their constitutional obligations to religious schooling in the 1990s.) What was once a vulnerable religious minority has now become a faith privileged above all others. This is simply not fair. The court ruling thus offers an opportunity to re-examine the historical commitment to Catholic education in the context of modern Canada. And the solution isn’t to hide behind the notwithstanding clause.
With nearly 1,000 religious independent schools in Canada, there’s clearly substantial demand for religious education, with or without public funding. And while the status quo of offering full public funding for just one religion should no longer be acceptable to Canadians, this doesn’t naturally lead to the conclusion that one monolithic, monopolistic public system is appropriate or desirable. In Ontario, for example, Catholic boards deliver a crucial degree of competition and parental choice. Standardized tests routinely show that students in Catholic schools outperform their peers in the public system. Whether this rigour is due to religious pedagogy or simply the result of a smaller rival trying harder is unclear. Regardless, we can’t risk eliminating such an important component of effective education.
The obvious and fair solution is to find a way to incorporate greater choice and religious freedom in schooling, rather than less. In Alberta, private schools that meet curriculum and teaching standards receive 70 per cent of the per-pupil amounts provided to public and Catholic schools. In Saskatchewan, B.C., Manitoba and Quebec, independent schools can receive up to 50 per cent. Our ultimate goal should be to offer full funding for all students in whatever school their parents choose, religious or otherwise. Let’s use this opportunity to deliver real school choice to families in a way that’s fair to everyone.