The campaign for the June 7 Ontario election is now in full swing and there are some important issues you won’t hear party leaders Doug Ford, Andrea Horwath or Kathleen Wynne – or, for that matter, any of their candidates – talking about.
Among those issues is funding for non-Catholic faith-based schools in Ontario. Ontario provides 100 per cent of the funding to run the Catholic school system in the province and no funding at all for the schools of all other faith groups. This province is the only jurisdiction in North America which still funds the religious school system of one religion to the exclusion of all others. A number of other Canadian provinces, including Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, have put formulas in place to provide some level of public funding to faith-based schools that meet their provincial curriculum standards.
In 1999, when the Progressive Conservatives were in power under premier Mike Harris, the United Nations Human Rights Commission said the province’s funding of Catholic schools but not those of other religions was discriminatory and a violation of Canada’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN commission reiterated that ruling again in 2005 when the Liberals were in power under premier Dalton McGuinty.
The Progressive Conservatives, under leader John Tory (now the mayor of Toronto), seized on the issue in the 2007 provincial election campaign and promised to find a formula for non-Catholic faith-based school funding in the province. But Tory and the Tories (pun intended) did not manage the issue well. Instead of reaching out to the Liberals and New Democrats and finding consensus on an issue affecting only a relatively small minority of the population they let it become a partisan election issue. McGuinty and the Liberals played cynical, populist politics and made what could have – and should have – been a consensus-building issue into a deeply divisive wedge issue.
McGuinty, whose own children attended Catholic schools, said that children attending other faith-based schools “become sequestered and segregated,” implying that these children do not integrate well in society. This was surely insulting to all of the Jewish day school graduates in Ontario who have proven time and again how well they have integrated and who have made immeasurable contributions to society. And this is surely true, as well, for students who have attended the schools of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities, and various non-Catholic Christian communities including Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Evangelical Christian, Seventh Day Adventist and Mennonite.
Playing wedge politics on faith-based school funding worked for McGuinty and the Liberals in the 2007 election. Tory and the Progressive Conservatives were shellacked on election night and dropped the issue. None of the parties have brought it up since and this is now the third Ontario election campaign since 2007.
During the 1993 federal election campaign, Progressive Conservative leader Kim Campbell – then briefly the prime minister – said, “An election is no time to discuss serious issues.” Campbell was ridiculed for the comment and went down to perhaps the biggest election defeat of an incumbent in Canadian history. But maybe there was some truth to her comment. Some issues should not be partisan election campaign issues where party positions become hardened and polarized – as they did in 2007 on the issue of funding for non-Catholic faith-based schools. When talking about rights – or at least about what is right – an issue should be approached through nonpartisan consensus building.
The status quo in Ontario education funding has been in place since Confederation in 1867. But society has changed immeasurably over the course of 151 years. Other provinces have recognized this and adapted and so should ours.
I’ve heard MPPs from all three parties at Queen’s Park say off the record that if it were up to them, they’d support funding for faith-based schools. A common front of faith-based communities in Ontario needs to help the political parties find the consensus needed to correct the situation. The work should begin as soon as possible after the election.