Ontario's education minister, Mitzie Hunter, has rejected a report challenging the constitutional protection of the province's publicly-funded Catholic school system. Register file photo

Minister rejects report challenging constitutional protection of Ontario's Catholic education

By 
  • January 12, 2017

A report challenging the constitutional protection of Ontario’s publicly-funded Catholic school system has been dismissed by the minister of education.

“Our government is committed to continuing support for publicly-funded Catholic education and ensuring our publicly funded education system remains one of the best in the world,” said Mitzie Hunter, Minister of Education. “We know that all four of our publicly funded systems are dedicated to supporting all of our students achieve excellence and I look forward to continuing that partnership.”

On Dec. 20 the Fraser Institute released a report, penned by law professor Bruce Pardy, which challenged the protection of Catholic education as an untouchable political issue, rather than a legal one. It suggested that the government could “simply legislate its way out of the commitment” to open the door to education reform.

“The preferential treatment of Ontario Catholic schools,” compared to other religion-based education, wrote Pardy, “(is) exclusively a political problem rather than a legal one. Citizens cannot challenge the special status of Catholic schools in courts because it is shielded. However, the constitutional entitlement in section 93 is simple to amend.”

That section of the Canadian constitution entitles the Ontario Catholic school system to public funding and control over a separate, denominational education system.

While Pardy doesn’t dispute the interpretation of the law, he rejects the idea it cannot change with economic and demographic shifts.

“Constitutions are thought to express grand principles, but they also reflect political trade-offs made at the time of their creation,” wrote Pardy. “The circumstances that compelled those trade-offs pass into history, but the bargains themselves endure in the form of constitutional provisions sometimes to the detriment of later generations.”

Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta provide public funding for both Catholic and public schools.

Two of Canada’s provinces which previously had publicly-funded Catholic education — Quebec as well as Newfoundland and Labrador — have already implemented the kind of reform Pardy is suggesting. Such reform requires both the province and federal government to draft legislation omitting the province from the conditions guaranteed under section 93 of the Constitution.

But Ontario’s government disagrees with challenging the Constitution as the best means of cutting education costs.

“We know there are ways to achieve greater efficiencies in the education system without undermining our constitutional obligations to our Catholic and French education systems,” said Hunter.

A number of the province’s Catholic and public boards have already begun exploring sharing services, such as transportation, administration and facilities, to cut costs as enrollment declines.

According to the ministry’s official figures, almost 46,000 fewer students enrolled in publicly-funded education this September compared to 2003.

Despite asking public and Catholic boards to partner-up wherever possible to save money, the Ministry of Education has actually increased funding in recent years. Since 2003, funding has increased by 59 per cent to $22.9 billion.

Ann Hawkins, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, noted that one-third of Ontario’s students are educated within Catholic boards with a significant number of those in Catholic secondary schools being of a religion other than Catholicism.

Pat Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees’ Association, criticized the Fraser report for overlooking the positive contributions of Catholic education.

“If you look at any provincial national international test results Catholic schools in Ontario, the students and the schools do have amazing results.”

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