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Government-funded religious schools in Canada


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Early in the 19th century, various religious and charitable groups began to establish schools in Canada. By the middle of that century, colonial governments were faced with a Catholic minority in Ontario who didn't want their children learning Protestant beliefs, and a Protestant minority in Quebec who didn't want their children being exposed to Roman Catholic beliefs. So the governments of Upper and Lower Canada -- now called Ontario and Quebec -- established dual school systems in each province: one Protestant and the other Catholic. Section 93 the Constitution Act of 1867, guaranteed that the two government-funded school systems would continue.

During the second half of the 20th century, the Protestant school system in Ontario gradually became secular. The author can recall from the late 1940s morning Protestant prayers and school assemblies with sermons by visiting Protestant ministers. He recalls reading newspaper advertisements during the early 1960s in the Kingston ON paper seeking "Protestant music teachers." These were placed by rural school boards that hadn't quite wrapped their mind around accepting the transition from Protestant-based to secular-based schooling.

Prior to 1985, the Ontario Government only funded elementary Roman Catholic separate schools. In that year as his last act before retiring, premier Bill Davis (Conservative) extended full funding to Catholic high schools. This was a very controversial move that caused a loss of voter support for the Conservative party at the time. Schools run by other religious groups continued to receive no funding at all.

In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that the Ontario system was religiously discriminatory. They suggested that:

bullet Either all faith-based schools be fully funded by the provincial government,
bullet Or no such schools be funded.

By 2007 of the approximately 2.2 million students in Ontario's elementary and high schools:

bullet 95% of students attend publicly funded schools, of whom 31% Catholic go to separate schools and 69% attend secular public schools.
bullet 2% attend faith-based private schools: Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim etc. They are financed by religious institutions and parents.
bullet 3% attend secular private schools and are financed by their parents. 1

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Attempts to change the system:

On 2007-AUG-27, representatives of the Armenian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh communities formed the Education Fairness Network (EFN). They asked the Ontario government to fund all faith-based schools that met provincial standards. Howard English, a spokesperson for EFN and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of greater Toronto said:

"The current situation is unfair and indefensible. When one uses the term public education, we're not talking about a secular system, we're talking about a system that already includes about 650,000 faith-based students who go to Catholic schools. We're saying that it's unjust to provide funding for one faith-based system that meets provincial standards while keeping other students out. These schools believe very strongly that a faith-based system would reflect the diversity of 21st-century Ontario." 1

Colleen Schenk, vice-president and spokesperson for the Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) opposes the extension of funding for either faith-based or secular private schools in Ontario. She said: "We feel that it's very divisive," She referred to the creation of "silos" where people of different faiths focus on their differences. In contrast, the OPSBA feels that public education in multi-cultural provinces like Ontario helps to unite students. 1 Southern Ontario has been described as the most religiously diverse region of any country in the world.

Elaine MacNeil, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) said:

"There's a fair bit of worry among teachers about what all this controversy might mean for us down the road, and our members do not support funding private schools. ... We'll do whatever we have to do to protect our system from any challenge to our constitutional rights." 6

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The conflict, leading up to the 2007 Ontario election:

An election is scheduled for 2007-OCT-10. The topic of extending funding to all faith-based schools dominated the first few weeks of campaigning.

bullet The Progressive Conservative (PC) party, headed by an appropriately named leader "John Tory," promoted government funding of all of those faith-based schools that hire certified teachers, participate in provincial testing, and teach the Ontario curriculum. If he becomes premier of Ontario, he promised to create a Fairness Implementation Commission, headed by former premier Bill Davis, that would recommend how to extend full funding to non-Catholic religious schools. 5

Commentator Jeffery Ewener speculates that the PC's hoped to:

"... drive a wedge between ethnic voters and their beloved Liberals. It would undermine the government's claim on its proudest and most legitimate area of achievement, that of public education. ... It would create, in secular, small-l liberal Ontario, the same solid religious conservative base that brought George W. Bush and his allies to power in the United States." 12

Unfortunately, for Tory and the PCs, the issue of faith-based school funding was a major political disaster that snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory.

bullet The Liberal Party and New Democratic Party (a socialist party) proposed retaining the status quo -- government funding of both public and Roman Catholic faith-based schools, while withholding financial support from other faith-based schools. There is a near consensus in Ontario that this arrangement is a form of unfair religious discrimination. But there is no consensus at this time about how to change the system.
bullet The Green Party proposed a single government-supported secular system, an end to government-supported Roman Catholic schools, and a mandatory world religion class to promote religious tolerance. 2

The debate led in many different directions:

bullet Substantial support surfaced in Ontario for the elimination of government support for the Roman Catholic separate system in favor of a single secular public system.
bullet Comedian Rick Mercer, in the season premiere of his Rick Mercer Report program "joked that Osama bin Laden released a short video endorsing John Tory's move to fund religious schools." 2
bullet Some candidates from the Progressive Conservative party bolted from the party platform and said they would vote against Tory's plan. The Canadian Press obtained responses from 91 Conservative party candidates during the first week of 2007-OCT. They found that 28 (31%) would vote against funding; 11 (12%) would support it, and 52 (57%) were undecided. 7
bullet Near the end of the campaign, John Tory changed his position and said that if he won the election, he would allow a free vote in the legislature on his plan to fund all faith-based schools. (Members of the legislature are normally expected to vote strictly according to the party line on most bills). Tory was accused of performing a flip-flop by some political commentators.
bullet Father Alphonse de Valk of the Catholic Insight magazine said that the magazine"

"... sees no choice but to abandon the policy of supporting worthy candidates in all parties. Instead, we will support only the candidates of the small, centrist, pro-people Family Coalition Party. The situation is so bad that it would be inexcusable for us to do otherwise. ... the NDP and the Greens are constitutionally committed to a pro-death, anti-human philosophy. ... The leaders of the Ontario Liberal and the Progressive Conservative parties have now also made it impossible for family-minded Canadians to vote for them. 3

He took a swipe at the federal Liberal Party that:

"... from Pierre Trudeau (1968-1984) to Paul Martin (2004-2006), mocked human Reason, Tradition and Religion with anti-family policies sanctioning contraception, divorce, pornography and same-sex ‘marriage,’ matched only by their pro-death abortion and embryonic stem-cell legislation.

(Religious conservatives often place the word "marriage" in "same-sex marriage" in quotation marks to denigrate same-sex couples and indicate that they consider same-sex marriage to be a false form of quasi-marriage.)

Fr. De Valk rejected the Tory plan to fund faith-based schools because it would:

"... bring those schools under the complete control of the Ontario Ministry of Education, which means adopting its same sex and other propaganda courses."  3

bullet Haroon Siddiqui, a columnist for the Toronto Star newspaper, wrote on 2007-OCT-07 that the Tory plan to fund faith-based schools failed because of:

"public unease with Muslims and Islam, blatant in the first instance, implicit yet not at all that hidden in the second. ... Now Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and other faith schools may pay the price for fear of Muslim schools being funded. ... it is strange to argue that funding 675,000 students in Ontario Catholic schools has not destroyed the public system but funding another 53,000 would. Implicit in that argument is the notion that Catholics, whom we didn't trust at one time, are now acceptable but Jews, Hindus and Sikhs are not. Or that they all are but Muslims are not. Opposition to abortion, gay marriage and women priests from Catholics can be tolerated, but not from orthodox Jews, Muslims and others."

bullet Siddiqui and all of the other commentators and politicians that we have studied seem to assume assume that no additional students would join the 53,000 students who currently go to faith-based schools if the latter were funded. In fact, there are numerous families that are only prevented from sending their children to those schools because of the high cost. If the cost were reduced to zero, the enrollment might easily quadruple.
bullet Seventy percent of readers in a recent Toronto Star poll favored a single secular school system and zero funding to funding of Roman Catholic and all other faith-based schools.
bullet Some thoughts by Catholic students. Those interviewed were all about 13 years-of-age:
bullet Nora Butris: "Even the thought of making Catholic schools (the same as) public is preposterous and outrageous – we really need religion in our lives. ... Put all students of different religions in one building together? It would be like Jerusalem – religious wars."
bullet Rohmel Andrew: "In public schools you don't learn about God or Jesus and I think it's important to learn about how we came to be."
bullet Ina Zaka said that being around fellow Catholics "encourages me to be more Christianlike and be a role model to the younger kids."
bullet Some thoughts by Catholic students about 8 years-of-age who were interviewed in Grade 3:
bullet "Catholic schools mean you go to church – and you pray."
bullet "Catholic schools don't let you wear a tank top or use bad language."
bullet "At Catholic schools we learn about God – but public schools worship a different God." 6
bullet There has been very little discussion about topics on which faith-based schools in Ontario differ in their teaching from public schools. This frequently happens with regard to gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity and sex-ed. With the exception of some liberal Jewish schools, almost all faith-based schools reflect the most conservative wings of their religions. Their denominations frequently teach that women and men are to be assigned different roles in the family, employment and church: positions of power are typically reserved for men. Women are expected to submit. These same denominations generally teach that homosexuality is hated by God, is chosen, abnormal, unnatural, and changeable. They teach sexual abstinence and often downplay information on contraceptives and how students can avoid sexually transmitted diseases. These beliefs are generally in conflict with the government's policies and with the beliefs of most Ontarians.
bullet There has been considerable discussion on the negative effect that a multiplicity of faith-based schools would have on social cohesion in the province. The benefits of educating children and youth of all races, religions cultures, genders, sexual orientations, sexual identities together have also been discussed.
bullet In spite of Tory's effort to defuse the faith-based school issue near the end of the election, the PCs lost. The Liberal Party was returned in a majority government with an increased number of seats. Dalton McGuinty became the first Liberal Party leader of Ontario in seven decades to have returned two consecutive majority governments.

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Poll results:

bullet 2007-SEP-10: Ipsos Reid reported on a poll sponsored by CanWest News Service. They determined that:
bullet 35% of Ontarians supported full funding of all faith-based schools that comply with provincial standards.
bullet 62% opposed such funding.
bullet 3% were undecided or did not answer. This is a rather small percentage and may indicate the degree of polarization over this topic. 8,9
bullet  2007-SEP-6 to 9: Environics reported:
bullet 48% support support full funding of all faith-based schools that comply with provincial standards.
bullet 22% are strongly supportive.
bullet 44% oppose such funding
bullet 31% strongly oppose it
bullet 501 Ontario adults polled; margin of error = ~+mn~4.4%
bullet The major differences between the Ipsos Reid and Environics polls is probably due to the precise wording of the question asked, and what questions were asked prior to the one on school funding.
Environics has polled Ontarians on funding of all faith-based schools since 1986. Support has been steadily slipping:
bullet 1986: 71% support
bullet 1991: 57%
bullet 1994: 54%
bullet 2007: 48% 9,10
bullet 2007-OCT-08: The Toronto Star maintains a group of "Star Advisers" and online panel of readers. More than 470 members of the group responded to questions on faith-based school funding:
bullet 70% favored ending financial support for Catholic schools in favor of a single taxpayer-funded public school system
bullet 23% favor the status quo.
bullet 7% favored John Tory's proposal. 11

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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. Jennifer Wilson, "Faith-based schools," CBC News, 2007-SEP-17, at:
  2. Kristin Roshowy, "Ontario Votes," The Toronto Star, 2007-OCT-08, Page A15.
  3. Fr. Alphonse de Valk, "Ontario needs the Family Coalition Party," Catholic Insight, 2007-JUL/AUG issue, at:
  4. HaroonSiddiqui, "Ontario democracy fails faith-based test of maturity," The Toronto Star, 2007-OCT-07, at:
  5. Gerald Vandezande, "Fairness and faith-based funding," The Toronto Star, 2007-OCT-03, at:
  6. Louise Brown, "Catholic schools feel fallout of Tory's idea," The Toronto Star, 2007-OCT-08, at:
  7. Steve Rennie & Sean Patrick Sullivan, "Conservatives divided on faith-based schools," The Canadian Press, 2007-OCT-08, at:
  8. "Faith-Based Funding A Clear Loser For John Tory, But Desire For Change Buttresses Conservatives. Lack Of Faith In McGuinty’s Leadership VS Tory’s Support For Faith-Based School Funding Weigh On Voters Support," Ipsos Reid, 2007-SEP-10, at:  Full access requires subscription.
  9. Jennifer Wilson, "Faith-based schools," CBC News, 2007-SEP-17, at:
  10. "Ontarians divided over proposal to extend public funding to all religious schools," Environics, 2007-SEP-13, at:
  11. Rob Ferguson, "Go to one public system, panel says," The Toronto Star. 2007-OCT-08, at:
  12. Jeffery Ewener, "Religious right and wrong," The Toronto Star, 2007-OCT-10, Page AA8.  Online at:

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Copyright © 2007 & 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2007-OCT-08
Latest update: 2008-JAN-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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