Friday, February 25, 2011

Ontario Catholic schools and Gay-Straight Alliances

I've jokingly remarked to my husband in the past that if I'd been born 60 years earlier, I probably would have been a Jesuit priest, rather than the openly-gay university professor that I've become. But if I'd been born a mere 6 years earlier, my parents would have had to decide whether they wanted to pay tuition for a private Catholic school education for my three final years of high school. Until 1986, Catholic education in Ontario was only funded through to Grade 10. (Ironically, if I'd been born only one year earlier, I could have avoided what did happen to my high school education, when the school I attended, De La Salle College, a private school that had joined the Toronto Catholic Board after public funding became available, opted to re-privatize as a protest against the Rae government's destreaming of Grade 9, leaving me and many of my friends in the lurch for our last year of high school because the school would not initially be offering OAC (Grade 13). But I digress...)

The issue of public funding of Catholic schools has been a hot-button issue recently for Xtra!, Toronto's main gay newspaper, and their coverage has been picked up by a number of other media outlets, including the Star and the Globe. Specifically, they are concerned over the situation in the Halton Catholic District School Board, and its policy regarding gay-straight alliances (GSAs), a policy which effectively was to ban their existence. In conducting further investigations, the paper discovered that none of Ontario's Catholic School Boards actually have a gay-straight alliance in their schools.

This situation has outraged many of Xtra!'s writers, who have called on other gay organizations to join in applying pressure to the boards to change their policies, or to perhaps contemplate yanking public funding for these schools on the basis of their discriminatory policies.

In some respects, I sympathize with the position of the GSA advocates. I certainly believe that my own high school years might have been very different if there had been a school culture that was more open to gay students (as it was, gay and questioning students just flocked to the newspaper and the yearbook!) I also disagree with the Catholic Church's stance on homosexuality. But that being said, I also think that these Catholic school boards are implementing a policy that is consistent with current Catholic teachings, and that as such they are as much within their constitutional rights to ban GSAs as they are to prohibit pro-choice student groups. So while I support Xtra!'s sentiments, I can't say that I'm convinced by their proposed solutions.

The crux of the situation is that public funding for Catholic education in Ontario is protected under section 93 of the Constitution Act of 1867. Specifically, the rights and privileges of any denominational schools or system of separate schools that existed by law at the time that province joined Confederation are protected. It's why until recently Quebec's protestant schools were protected, and so too were half a dozen different denominational school boards in Newfoundland. The issue in Ontario is a bit trickier because public funding to the senior years of high school was only extended as of 1986. (Indeed, this is why when the Robarts government extended public funding to francophone high schools in the 1960s, he started with public schools, to allow for full funding, despite the fact that most Franco-Ontarians were Catholic.) In theory, I suppose, there might be a case for revoking funding to Grades 11 and 12. But this gets me to my larger point...

I believe that at present Ontario's Catholic schools have the constitutional right to govern themselves in accordance with Catholic teaching, however much I might disapprove of this. As I see it, there are two main ways that this could change. The first would be to convince Ontario's Catholics, and specifically those running the school boards, to break with the papal authority over key social issues such as homosexuality, and permit clubs like GSAs in their schools. The tricky issue here is that although many Canadian Catholics (including some Catholic school teachers) don't support current Church teachings on issues such as contraception, homosexuality and abortion, those that do not are also less likely to still be politically engaged. This would also be a major political battle.

The second option, and one promoted in the last provincial election by the Green party, would be to seek a constitutional amendment to end Ontario's Catholic school protections. This would require the consent of the federal and Ontario governments. Such an amendment was reached with Quebec, when it moved from a confessional to a linguistic series of school boards in the 1990s, and with Newfoundland, when it abandoned its costly funding of six separate denominations. Unfortunately, while I personally support this option, I don't see it as likely in the short term. Catholics (whether practicing or not) still make up slightly over a third of the province's population and as such constitute a major voting block. Unlike the situation in Quebec, Ontario has not moved in a hardcore secular direction, and, current economic woes aside, it is not in nearly the financial straits that were faced by Newfoundland when it eliminated its costly denominational system. Moreover, Premier Dalton McGuinty has given no sign that he (a Catholic himself) has any inclination to move in this direction. Even terminating public funding to grades 11 and 12, which might be constitutionally defensible, would likely prove to be a political nightmare for whichever government implemented it. Acquired rights are awfully hard to undo.

Of course, there is one final option. Catholics who firmly disagree with the current teachings of the Church and its schools can vote with their feet and have their children educated in the public school boards of the province. While public funding is guaranteed, it is ultimately tied to student enrollments, and a hit to the bottom line might finally bring home the message that the Catholic school boards discriminatory policies are no longer considered acceptable in this province.

ETA: I should probably add that, as a historian, I'm not certain about whether the right of the Catholic school boards to ban GSAs would hold up in court, particularly if the provincial ministry of education attempted to force the issue. I rather suspect that this would fall into a bit of a grey area in terms of legal and constitutional rights, which might well be very tricky to sort out.

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At 6:13 pm, Blogger Leonard Baak said...

Catholics may make up 34% of the Ontario population, but they are hardly a voting block. Many of them agree with the idea of moving to one school system according to polls conducted by both the Catholic and public teachers unions. Remember that 80% or more of the families using publicly funded Catholic schools today are "unchurched". Catholics can see as well as anyone that all the money wasted on duplication could address some of the funding shortfalls faced by school boards today.

At 10:51 am, Anonymous Eamon said...

As a former public school student, I always felt that public funding for Catholic schools was a constitutional anachronism in Canada, the same way the right to bear arms is in the USA. In the US example, the right to bear arms was enshrined in large part as a reaction to recent threats from outsiders. In Canada, the public funding of Catholic schools in Ontario was a nod to the desires of French Catholics. Please, correct me if I'm wrong.

In terms of the GSAs, I'm not sure what rights Catholic school boards have to restrict that type of activity. As an agnostic, I've often found it difficult to understand why groups that have been persecuted by the Catholic church in the past continue to attend mass and Catholic schools. While I understand that faith is a difficult thing to change, and as an "Irish Catholic" (who has never gone to church but understands the Catholic/Protestant dichotomy) I understand that switching to a different sect within Christianity is difficult, I don't get why switching to the United Church or something isn't more common...

I'm not trying to be ignorant, I just honestly don't understand...

At 3:41 pm, Blogger Matt said...


Actually, the protection and funding of Catholic schools in Ontario was a quid pro quo for the protection and funding of Protestant Schools in Quebec (championed by Alexander Galt). It was the Quebec Protestants who sought the constitutional protections first, and the Catholics demanded equal treatment in Ontario as a counter-point.

As for the "why stick with the Catholic Church" question, I share your bewilderment. I left the Catholic Church a long time ago (I'm a fan of the term "recovering Catholic") and have never really understood why people would want to belong to an institution that treated them with such contempt, particularly given the other options available.

At 7:49 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...


I probably didn't write my first comment as clearly as I meant to. I knew the history behind the protection of Catholic schooling in Ontario (and Protestant schooling in Quebec) - I actually wrote a paper on it in my second year (which, as we know, makes me an expert).

What I meant was that the original purpose of these protections seems about as relevant in Canada today as the original meaning of the right to bear arms is today. Protection of Catholic schools in Ontario and Protestant schools in Quebec isn't as much of an issue today, the same way the threat of a foreign invasion into the US is unlikely to happen in 2011.

At 9:39 am, Blogger Matt said...

I agree that it's an anachronism. Unfortunately, it's an anachronism and Bill Davis's government decided to support and expand in the mid-1980s by extending full funding to the province's Catholic high schools, rather than allow them to collapse under their own financial burdens. It makes it more difficult to get rid of the anachronism - not impossible, mind you, but more difficult.

At 12:22 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...

If there was any way to prove that they are hemorrhaging money, then it would be no problem in a cash-strapped province... but I don't know where you'd get numbers like that.

I'm actually surprised that this duplication didn't get removed when Harris was Premier. After all, even though he did a terrible job of almost everything, he did seem interested in removing overlap and duplication. Many people not easily riled about things like this, but if you told them that their tax dollars were going toward supporting two sets of administrators (Catholic and public) in every district you could probably get popular support. After all, the people supported municipal amalgamations (as long as it didn't happen to them...


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