Mark McGowan

Catholic education: ‘Use it or lose it’

  • May 30, 2019

Ontario Catholics should never assume publicly-funded Catholic schools will continue to form generation after generation of youth, according to the author of a concise history of the province’s Catholic schools.

The more Catholics assume their education system is protected by the Constitution, by political consensus and by the immense expense of ever untangling 150 years of history that gave us four publicly funded school systems, the greater the danger to Catholic education, says Mark McGowan.

“I think we’ve become very comfortable within the system,” the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s College history professor told The Catholic Register. “It’s not that I’m not optimistic. I think that in some ways we have to take a reality check. Take a look at where we are right now politically in a province that is increasingly multicultural, increasingly multi-religious and a government right now that is increasingly concerned — and I’m not sympathetic with this government — with the bottom line.”

McGowan has just published It’s Our Turn with Catholic publisher Novalis. The book is inspired in part by a fear that Catholics are forgetting the story of how Catholic education came to be and how it survived in Ontario. He offers 20 short biographies of pioneers and builders of Ontario’s Catholic schools to make the history come alive in less than 150 pages.

“These are pioneers from the past, upon whose shoulders we stand. This is what they did. These are the circumstances they faced. This was the creativity that they used in some ways to try to solve the challenges they faced. Now, it’s our turn,” explained McGowan. 

As arguments in favour of consolidating public and Catholic school boards grow louder and political support for Catholic education at Queen’s Park weakens, Catholics are going to have to be clear about why they value their system and why the rest of the province should value it.

“We have this enduring gift here. This book calls us to say, let’s use it or lose it,” McGowan said.

“This is a clarion call to all out there to be awake — not to be asleep at the wheel. This system could have been eliminated completely in its infancy, but we actually had dedicated people, smart people, who worked together.”

McGowan looks out at the politics of education today and sees fainthearted support for Catholic schools among members of the opposition NDP. He recalls that Progressive Conservatives opposed Catholic education rights for a century before extending funding to Grades 11 to 13 in 1984.  Having acceded to requests from Newfoundland and Quebec to eliminate Catholic education rights in those provinces, McGowan finds it unlikely that Ottawa would refuse Ontario if the province asked for the same. 

As a historian, McGowan knows there are good arguments to be made for minority education rights. 

But first there’s the question of whether Ontario Catholics are prepared to speak with one voice in defence of their rights.

“We are by no means united. I have never seen the Church so divided in my own lifetime.” 

Headlines generated around the world by clerical sexual abuse scandals have left Catholics with few friends and allies, he said.

“If this is going to be sustainable, Catholics are going to have to ask themselves the question: ‘What is it in these schools that makes them worth
preserving?’ ” he said. “Once you have clarity, you can have a meaningful conversation outside the walls. But we have to have that internal conversation.”

It’s Our Turn is available at for $18.95.

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