The roots of discord over religious schools
The fight over separate schools in this province predates the country itself. Religion, it turns out, is Canada's oldest and deepest fault line
Lynda Hurst, Toronto Star, 22 Sept 07
"... Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos."
– Newspaper editor George Brown
Conservative Leader John Tory's provocative campaign call for public funding for all faith-based schools, or for none, has many Ontarians wondering how Roman Catholics came to have a separate system in the first place.
When and why did it happen?
Some may think the "right and privilege" began with the 1867 Constitution Act. But, in fact, separate schools pre-date Canada's Confederation. And they were neither a right nor a privilege, but a reflection of reality.
That reality was a grim one if you were Catholic in the Ontario of the 19th century, especially in York, as Toronto was then called.
Known as the "Belfast of North America," the city was populated mainly by Northern Irish and Scottish Protestants, who were appalled by the arrival of thousands of Irish Catholics forced out of Southern Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849.
The quote at the beginning of the article, from the Globe newspaper, was typical of the unrelenting bigotry against the impoverished "Papist" immigrants, their large families and peasant ways, their "Mick superstitions" and, perhaps worst of all, lack of loyalty to the British Crown.
In 1844, Egerton Ryerson, an English-born Methodist, became chief superintendent of schools for Upper Canada (Ontario), charged with setting up a system of "common" or public schools. By public, read Protestant. A few Catholic schools run by the church and paid for by the community would be allowed on the side.
Ryerson promised that a public system would prevent a "pestilence of social insubordination and disorder" being spread by the "untaught and idle pauper immigration."
More to the point, it would also assimilate the Catholic minority into the prevailing Protestant culture.
Ryerson's plan was to split that minority. Those in the common schools would gradually be absorbed, while others, once they saw the poor quality of the education in their schools, would abandon them for the public system.
"That was his hope," says Michael Power, author of A Promise Fulfilled, a history of Catholic education in Ontario. "But that didn't happen."
The Catholic minority became more determined than ever to have their own schools.
While the first Catholic bishop of Toronto more or less went along with Ryerson's idea, the next one, Bishop Armand de Charbonnel, who arrived in 1850, was infuriated by the situation. He denounced the public/Protestant system as an "insult" to Catholics and began a 10-year battle for the same kind of separate schools in Ontario that were provided for the Protestant minority in Quebec.
In 1841, the Act of Union had combined Ontario and Quebec into the United Province of Canada, with one legislative assembly. Half the members were French-speaking Catholics.
Due solely to their support, two acts were passed, in 1855 and 1863, creating the basis for today's separate system.
They gave Ontario's religious minority the right to direct their property taxes to the separate schools and guaranteed Catholic trustees the same powers as their public system counterparts.
"It was a fair political trade-off," says Power. "The Protestant minority was recognized in Quebec, then the Catholic minority should also be in Ontario. They were the realities of the time."
The intent was to lessen widespread religious intolerance, he says, not to provide Catholic privilege here or Protestant privilege in Quebec. The issue remained incendiary, however, with Toronto's press never tiring of their crusade against Catholic school funding.
Canada, meanwhile, was moving step-by-step toward dominion status. In 1866, at the last conference before Confederation the following year, delegates from Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick met in London with British officials to draft the British North America Act (BNA).
A major bone of contention was education, with Catholic bishops lobbying for assurances that separate-school systems would be protected. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick opposed the idea, but a compromise was reached.
Section 93 of the BNA (subsequently known as the 1867 Constitution Act) would deal only with Ontario's and Quebec's religious minorities, and would be unrepealable. It gave them the constitutional right to separate school systems, though leaving it up to the provinces to work out the funding.
Quebec moved quickly, passing legislation in 1869 for corporate taxes to be divided between the public and separate systems, according to the number of children enrolled in each.
"Quebec was always generous to the religious minority," says Power. "There was no century of fuss in Quebec like in Ontario."
It was, indeed, a different story here. After Confederation, separate schools became a permanent feature of the educational landscape, but their funding would long remain a hugely contentious issue.
In 1936, Liberal Premier Mitch Hepburn, feeling disposed to do something, as he put it, for "those who eat fish on Friday," introduced a bill, similar to Quebec's, compelling corporations and public utilities to direct 40 per cent of their taxes to separate schools.
In a December by-election in East Hastings that year, anti-Catholic protests cost the Liberals a seat. The following year, Hepburn repealed the bill.
Only in 1964 did Catholic schools, at least up to Grade 10, become government-funded by then education minister Bill Davis. In 1984, when Davis was Premier, he controversially extended the funding to secondary schools.
Today, the Toronto Catholic District School Board alone has 168 elementary schools, 31 high schools and two combined primary and secondary schools.
With Canada's changing demographic face, a challenge was sooner or later inevitable. In 1996, a case before the Supreme Court argued that Catholic-only school funding contravened the 1982 Charter of Rights, which guarantees equal treatment for all, regardless of religion.
The court ruled against the application. It noted that the founders of the nation had used Section 93 of the 1867 Constitution act to make Confederation possible between two distinct groups, Protestants and Catholics.
Their specific rights were further underlined in Section 29 of the Charter, which states "nothing in this Charter abrogates...from any rights or privileges guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada in respect of denominational, separate or dissentient schools."
That section, the court said, ensured "the complete and continuous enjoyment, by the religious minorities, of such rights as were originally granted."
In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Commission decreed that Ontario's separate school system is discriminatory and called for the issue to be addressed within 90 days. Conservative Premier Mike Harris refused.
And now the issue is back once again.
"People have to read history," says Michael Power, "to understand why Ontario's Catholic schools have had the right to exist since before Confederation."
As for Quebec: In 1998, it decided to end the religious distinctions, but maintained two secular systems based on language; a public French one, a separate English one.
Religion, after all, hasn't been Canada's only historical dispute. Just, it seems, the longest-lasting one.