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Government-funded religious schools in Canada

Newfoundland

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Until the 1990s, this province had four religious school systems that were government supported and run by various Christian denominations. The province had no secular public school system. This was a legacy from two centuries of British rule. The systems were Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and inter-denominational. The latter was a merger of previously existing  Anglican, Salvation Army and United Church systems.

Two public referendums and a constitutional amendment finally terminated government support for religious systems. Public schools in the province are now secular. The most recent referendum was held in 1997 when 73% of adults voted in favor of the change. Some of the support for secular schools might have been a backlash originating in horrendous physical and sexual abuse experienced at the Roman Catholic Mount Cashel orphanage that was run by the Christian Brothers. 2,3,4

The transition to a single secular system has a number of interesting implications with respect to religious freedom and religious tolerance:

bulletAlthough separate schools can theoretically continue in the future without government funding, it is unlikely that any will do so. In order to survive under the new system, parents would have to pay twice: once via fees for their school of choice, and once via taxes for the public system. This is the system by which parochial schools are financed in the U.S. Some religious groups, notably the Roman Catholics and Pentecostals see this as a restriction on their traditional religious freedom. They view the change as depriving much of the population of access to religious schooling for their children.
bulletThe previous, religiously based, system was not fair to all faith groups. The right to organize publicly supported religious schools was given to only certain Christian denominations. Tax money extracted from the public (Christians and non-Christians alike) was given to a specific select group of Christian faith-based school systems. No money was given to other Christian denominations or to non-Christian faith groups that might have wanted to establish faith-based schools of their own.
bulletParents who followed non-Christian religions, or who did not identify with any particular faith group, were free to ask that their children be exempted from Christian classes, prayers and assemblies. Unfortunately, this often led to harassment and abuse by other students who victimized anyone who was different. The only other option was to send their children to the only secular private school in the province, located at St John's. This was seen by many parents and students as a gross violation of their religious freedom.
bulletThe province has had a history of sectarian rivalry and friction - mainly between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The denominationally-affiliated schools were not noted for teaching religious tolerance towards other religions and toward other sectors of Christendom. It is apparent that the people of Newfoundland prefer a secular school system that does not favor one denomination over another, and does not divide the school body according to religious affiliation. This will hopefully lead to greater religious tolerance in Newfoundland's future.
bulletDenominational schools in the previous system could refuse admission to some students on purely religious grounds. One result is that many children were singled out as being different and bussed to other communities. This forced a significant emotional and physical hardship on some children.
bulletReligiously-based schools had the right to refuse to hire qualified teachers on purely religious grounds. Teachers who were Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Aboriginal, Atheist, and even Christian from smaller sects were discriminated against on the basis of religion. In a gross violation of their human rights, some teachers could not be hired anywhere in the province., except at the sole secular school.
bulletThe previous system was economically wasteful. With the efficiencies of a single school system, more money has become available for needed social programs that will improve the quality of life of Newfoundlanders.
bulletParents now elect secular boards of education and have a direct say in the running of their local schools. In the previous system, schools were run by religious groups which were not necessarily organized democratically. In many cases, parents had little or no influence on school policies.

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Developments in Newfoundland may be instructive to those Americans who are considering the introduction of school vouchers. They would give parents the option of sending their children to religiously based schools. To judge by the response of the citizens of Newfoundland at the recent referendum, the public might prefer a single, government supported, secular school system as superior to a multiple-choice religiously based system.

At one time, ridings in the nearby province of Prince Edward Island were represented in the PEI legislature by two MLAs: one Protestant and the other Roman Catholic. This was a response to past levels of bitter sectarian friction. But that structure tended to preserve religious intolerance rather than minimize it. It reduced the religious freedom and rights of those who were neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. This system has been abandoned in favor of a single candidate per riding. The resolution of the Newfoundland's school system seems to have followed a parallel course to this change PEI's legislature: less religious freedom and power for the majority; more freedom for religious minorities and secularists; and greater religious tolerance for all.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Richard Young, letter to the Globe and Mail on the Newfoundland referendum, 1995-AUG. See: http://infoweb.magi.com/
  2. CPAC Online, "The Newfoundland Referendum," at: http://www.cpac.ca/
  3. Hugh Segal, "On Balance: Reorganizing Newfoundland's school system. Tobin's referendum plan is liberalism at its worst," The Financial Post, 1997-AUG-16, at: http://www.avalon.nf.ca/

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Copyright 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2007-OCT-08
Latest update: 2007-OCT-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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