St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Roncesvalles, Toronto. Image: Enoch Leung/Flickr

The Catholic school board is a yoke around the necks of Ontarians. Not only is it a prejudicial and discriminatory system that should have ended decades ago, but its dissolution could save the province billions of dollars. 

For those who are unaware, here is the situation with Ontario’s education system:  

Ontario currently has four school boards: the English public and Catholic boards and the French public and Catholic boards. This piece will address the English public and Catholic boards only as they make up the majority of the schools and students. Catholic schools are funded through public tax dollars, yet these schools are named after saints in the Catholic denomination and require their students to attend religion class and wear a uniform. They have mass and celebrate Catholic holidays. Non-Catholics can attend a Catholic school in certain circumstances, but most cities have multiple schools in both the Catholic and public veins. 

How did this come about? Catholic schools pre-date Confederation. Because of issues between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Irish-Catholic immigrants were determined to make their own school system to preserve their culture. Due to the number of Catholic immigrants pressuring politicians, Catholic schools were listed as protected in the legislation when the British North America Act of 1867 was passed (section 93). Having separate school boards has been a contentious issue for almost one hundred and fifty years. 

Unfortunately, the power of the Catholic Church in Canada was one of the factors that led to the residential “school” system, the horrors of which are becoming more publicized with the recent evidence of 2000+ unmarked graves of Indigenous children at these sites. The Catholic Church ran over sixty percent of the residential schools in Canada, and while they were not the only organization involved, other religious leaders have apologized for their part. The Pope refuses to offer similar sentiments to the people and culture his religion has attempted to eradicate. The Catholic Church has also refused to release their residential school records with key evidence about the treatment of children at these schools, denying affected communities the right to this evidence and to remember. While today’s Ontario Catholic school boards were not involved in the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, and many (I would hope all) Catholics in this country are aghast at this part of our nation’s history, for Ontario to offer privileged treatment to this religion is dismaying and contradictory to reconciliation.

The Catholic school board is discriminatory in other ways today.

Despite being a publicly-funded institution, it has hiring practices that require Catholicism on the part of teachers. Catholic school teachers and public school teachers have the same post-secondary education, but only the former can teach at a Catholic school. A potential teacher needs a letter from a priest, which a non-Catholic would not be able to obtain. This is blatant discrimination. No other government institution is allowed to bar people from applying for a job based on their religion, as it is contrary to the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Likewise, there are instances of Catholic teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ having to hide their sexuality or risk being fired due to their identity, and the Halton Catholic District School Board refused to fly the Pride flag this past June, as did the Peterborough Northumberland Victoria Catholic District School Board, despite rallies of public support for the LGBTQ+ community in those regions. Not only is the firing or refusing to hire LGBTQ+ individuals flagrant discrimination, but the refusal to accept the sexuality and gender of their staff and support the queer community creates an environment for LGBTQ+ children that is hostile and dismissive. As we know, LGBTQ+ children are three times more likely to attempt suicide and develop depression than those who identify as cis-het. Attending a school that refuses to accept you would definitely contribute to mental health issues. 

Similarly, based on pressure from religious groups (not just Catholic), the Ford government overturned the 2015 Liberal government’s updated sex education plan, which addressed diversity and contraception and would have opened the doors to discussions of abortion. Even if Ford had not done so, the Catholic school board has the power to reject the sex-ed curriculum in any fashion, claiming they will teach sex-ed “through the lens of the Catholic faith.” As such, children in the Catholic board aren’t receiving the same education as those in the public board regarding sexuality, puberty, and sexual health. 

Canada prides itself on being inclusive, yet we have a system that privileges one group over the other. Why don’t children of other religions, even other parts of Christianity, get to attend schools of their religion for free? The United Nations called us out on this over twenty years ago

And then there are the practical concerns.

COVID-19 is costing Ontario billions. To help alleviate the costs of this pandemic, why would we not remove the administration costs of maintaining separate school boards? The Ontario government could save a billion dollars a year if they dissolved the Catholic school boards and kept only the English and French public boards. 

Further, this issue creates unnecessary logistical costs on our municipalities and limits access to local schools for non-Catholic students. Why are we busing children halfway across town to public school when there is a Catholic school within walking distance? This is the case in almost every city. 

Anecdotally, there is a high school a ten-minute walk from my house, but my children will be forced to bus to the other end of the city to attend their local public school. Though my eldest is just entering junior kindergarten, my partner and I have discussed moving houses to avoid this situation. It is not only the environmental cost of the extra driving but also safety issues with kids being further away from home and the disconnect with not attending a school in their own community. Likewise, it’s better for kids’ health to walk to school. 

It’s no surprise that most politicians will not touch this issue, even the Liberals and NDP, and it’s for a selfish reason: they believe it’s a sure way not to get re-elected due to the large Catholic base in Ontario. A few leaders have tried; most notably, Alvin Tedjo ran for the Ontario Liberals with this topic at the forefront, and the Green Party of Ontario supports dissolving the Catholic board. 

Unfortunately, no currently elected Ontario politician has the spine to take a stand on this issue, so something needs to be done on a federal or court level. The groups OPEN/CRIPE have been working for years to build momentum to bring about this change. 

Some defenders of the Catholic school board claim that the desire to close the board is an “attack” on Catholics. They claim this school board is their “right.” This is very easy to counter. We have a right to education (in the Education Act) and a right not to be persecuted for religious beliefs (in Ontario’s Human Rights Code), but no one should have the right to free religious education or preferential treatment. Many parents would like their child(ren) to attend a religious school that isn’t Catholic or a language-specific school that isn’t French, and to do so they pay tuition fees for private school. 

People understandably worry about job losses, but in most cities, the schools would not close due to the needs of the population — they would simply be merged into the public board, have their school name changed, and have religious class/mass removed from the curriculum. Since Catholic teachers attended the same colleges and universities as public school teachers, they are qualified to stay in their re-named school and teach the same classes, simply without a cross on the wall. 

This may be jumping ahead, but when we do dissolve the Catholic school board, how about we rename some of the schools after women, people of colour, or other Canadian heroes who have done so much good for our country.

Dr. Morgentaler, perhaps? 

Author’s note: A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419.

Viewpoint: Reproductive Justice is a blog by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

Tina Beier is an entrepreneur, an award-winning novelist, and a volunteer blog coordinator with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. She lives in Ontario and champions the causes of women’s rights, animal welfare, and the environment.

Image: Enoch Leung/Flickr