Ontario needs to learn Newfoundland's lessons

By  Fr. Carl Matthews, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • November 9, 2008
{mosimage}An article in the Oct. 12 issue begins with the headline, “Silence will doom Catholic schools.” It describes the view of an Alberta constitutional lawyer, Kevin Feehan. As one who has been involved in the Ontario school question since 1962, I say, “It depends.”

If, in a year or two, Ontario Catholics get worked up so that even a few shout, “We’ll show them that Catholics won’t be pushed around,” it will make headlines and we lose our own schools. They enrol 660,000 students today. The entire system will disappear just as it did in Newfoundland in 1998.

How so? Since English-language Catholics are a minority in every city and county in the province, we can’t win a referendum no matter how hard we try. It is as simple as that.

There are four branches to the J-K to Grade 12 school governance, each independent of the other. English public, French public, English Catholic, French Catholic. The struggles to get there since the beginnings in 1842 are the stories of heroism, mostly on the part of religious Sisters, now dead and gone to Heaven.

If our critics have their way, the time is coming when there will be only two school systems across Ontario: secular English schools and secular French schools. God Almighty will be shut out. In this devastating game of musical chairs, the main losers will be hundreds of thousands of Catholic children and youth.

A new rallying cry of a growing number of Catholic leaders here is: “Let’s learn from Newfoundland.” Though not a leader, I say that too, but for an opposite reason than what they have in mind.

Let us peer at the roots of the school system break-up in Newfoundland-Labrador. By the way, it and Ontario each are 37-per-cent Catholic. In 1996 Premier Clyde Wells announced that in two week’s time he would dictate a referendum for all adults in the province. The next day I saw that news item in a Toronto newspaper and immediately phoned the office of Gerald Fallon, executive director of Catholic school boards in that province. I begged him to pass on the suggestion that at the announcement of the referendum his leaders would tell the premier that every Catholic would boycott the vote since by the Constitution of Canada minority rights cannot be removed by the majority. Instead let the crucial matter be referred to the courts where it would be decided solely on the basis of Section 93 (1) of the Constitution Act (1867) and Section 29 of the Charter of Rights. Mr. Fallon replied: “That proposal is ridiculous. We will work really hard and we will win. We’ll show the premier that Catholics, mostly Irish, won’t be pushed around! You don’t know our people, Father.”

That’s true, even though I’m as Irish as they are. I was only staring, really staring, at that 37-per-cent figure.

Over the next month both sides gave it their all. Our fellow Catholics (and a few Pentecostals) lost in a really close vote: 51-per-cent to 49-per-cent. It was a heart-wrenching loss. Someone has said that only in horseshoes is a close shot a winner.

Premier Wells retired and Brian Tobin became premier. He announced that a second referendum would be held. It was now too late for Catholic leaders to take the main matter to court since they had wholeheartedly participated in the first referendum and were expected to live by the outcome of the vote by all citizens.

The new premier promised some religious instruction in the secular schools. Whatever the reason, Premier Tobin won the second referendum in a landslide.

Today in the entire province there are two Catholic independent schools, whereas 12 years ago Catholic public schools were in every community. The secular public schools have no Catholic instruction at all.

If only the Catholic electorate had boycotted that first referendum, and instead gone to court in the context of the Canadian Constitution, they might still have their outstanding schools.

Sadly, it is too late for the Province of Newfoundland-Labrador, but not for Ontario, not for Alberta, not for Saskatchewan. If Catholic leaders find themselves in the Supreme Court of Canada, the litmus test will be found in two places that are pillars to the eminent justices, based on education cases since 1962:

First: Section 93 of the country’s Constitution in 1867:

“In and for each Province the Legislature may exclusively make laws in relation to education, subject and according to the following provision:

“Nothing in any law shall prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to denominational schools which any class of persons have by law in the Province at the Union.”

Second: Section 29 of the 1982 Charter of Rights, state: “Nothing in this Charter abrogates or derogates from any rights or privileges guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada in respect of denominational, separate or dissentient schools.”

In The Charter of Rights Ian Greene writes: “Section 29 states the clear intention of the framers of the charter that the denominational school rights in Canada’s original Constitution be continued.”

We need to continue to show everyone what teachers and students accomplish in each Catholic school. If extinction is threatened, provincial Catholic leaders should immediately go to court, instead of us participating in a referendum.

(Fr. Matthews is pastor of St. John’s Church, Waubaushene, Ont., and is a former chair of the Metropolitan Toronto Separate School Board and former editor of The Catholic Register.)

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