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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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Mon pays, ce n'est pas Vancouver!

I had to shake my head in amused bewilderment in reading Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong's whining in his memoirs about how the issue of French in the Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies was criticized by people like Graham Fraser and James Moore, excerpted in this morning's Globe and Mail. He seems to be very put upon, stung by criticisms of people he thought were his political allies. I posted my own thoughts on this issue last year.

But the thing that I found really amusing, in a shake-your-head kind of way, is Furlong's defence of the relative absence of French in the ceremony, which was that the original plan for the opening ceremonies, designed by David Atkins, was to have a major component oriented around Gilles Vigneault's song "Mon Pays", only to have Vigneault refuse them the rights.

The fact that Atkins and Furlong were surprised by this just goes to show how completely out of touch they are with the province of Quebec and Canadian history. I freely acknowledge that the lyrics for the song, on their face, are great for a Canadian Olympics, since they roughly translate as "My country, it is not a country, it is winter." But the song is a long-standing nationalist hymn for the sovereignty movement, and Vigneault himself is a high-profile separatist. After the 1980 referendum went down to defeat, it was "Mon Pays" that the disappointed crowd of "Oui" supporters sang. And so it shouldn't have been any surprise that he wouldn't allow it to be sung in a ceremony celebrating a united Canada including Quebec. Indeed, it's amazing that the organizers designed as much of a program around it as they did without asking his permission first. Whatever else one might think about how Furlong felt about how he was treated for his under-use of French, the fact that this is his line of defence indicates, at least to me, just how out of touch he was with the highly political issue of language.

ETA: Correction: As one of the commenters pointed out, it was "Gens du Pays", not "Mon Pays", that was sung on the night of the referendum - a quick check of Daniel Poliquin's biography of Levesque confirmed this. But it was still Vigneault, and "Mon Pays" also holds an anthemic status in the province.

The melody for "Mon Pays," for those who like Canadian trivia, was reworked into the 1970s disco hit "From New York to L.A." by Acadian chanteuse Patsy Gallant, who appeared many times as part of Ottawa's Canada Day events.

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