Faith and education can mix

By  Lee Giles, the Red Deer Advocate
  • October 22, 2007
{mosimage}Editor’s note: This article offers a perspective on faith-based education from outside Ontario. It is written by Lee Giles, an editor for the Red Deer Advocate, a daily newspaper in Red Deer, Alta. It is reprinted with permission.

If someone asked you to name the Canadian province most likely to embrace religious diversity, you just might choose Ontario. After all, is there anywhere in the country where you could find a greater number of faiths represented than in Toronto? Not likely.

Canada’s most populated city features virtually every denomination of Christianity, not to mention sizable numbers of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Other parts of Ontario may not be as diverse as Hogtown, but they are still relatively diverse compared with most of Canada.

So it should come as a big surprise that Ontario’s provincial election campaign was dominated by one pivotal controversy: public funding for faith-based schools. The Conservatives lost the Oct. 10 vote to the Liberals, and the main reason they were defeated was they picked the wrong horse in the school funding race.

The Tories, led by John Tory, initially vowed to spend $400 million to fully fund Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and other religious schools, provided they follow the provincial curriculum and comply with Ontario’s educational regulations. However, trailing by about 10 per cent in the polls, Tory flip-flopped by promising caucus members a free vote on his proposal to extend public funding to private religious schools.

Catholic schools are the only religious schools to be publicly funded in Ontario (a situation that began about 15 years before Confederation in 1867).

Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and NDP Leader Howard Hampton are opposed to giving other religions the same funding as Catholics. Green Party Leader Frank de Jong wants to go one step further than the Grits and New Democrats and strip public funds away from Catholic schools.

So who is in the wrong? Well, all of the politicians are.

The Greens are wrong for wanting to rob Catholics of funding they’ve been guaranteed by historical precedent. The Liberals and NDP are wrong for opting not to provide Jews, Muslims, Protestants, etc., with the same funding for their religious schools as Catholics. The Conservatives are wrong for doing an about-face on an issue they were right about in the first place.

Wrong as everyone is, the Liberals and NDP deserve the hardest kick in the shins. As University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman noted in an interview on CTV, the Green and Conservative parties’ positions are at least consistent. The Grits and NDP, however, are hypocrites for endorsing public funding for Catholics, but not for other religions.

Interestingly, the controversy is contributing to a growing sentiment in Ontario that the only way to level the playing field is to take away funding from Catholics and use that money to ensure the public system is properly funded.

That isn’t the right solution. There’s no need to rob Peter to pay Paul. Canada is richer for its religious and cultural diversity. We should do everything within reason to encourage such variety.

That means, just as Ontario should extend the funding available to Catholics to other religious schools, all of Canada should continue to expand the types of schools funded with respect to languages and other skills and disciplines taught. Let’s have more schools devoted to the trades, performing arts and excellence in sports.

Meanwhile, politicians must address Ontario’s school funding inequity. If they don’t, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs will continue to take a back seat to Catholics.

Ironically, in Alberta, where we’re sometimes characterized as narrow-minded rednecks, the government provides funding not only to Catholic schools, but to other faith-based educational institutions, too.

Alberta is ahead of Ontario when it comes to fostering diversity. Imagine that!

There is funding for non-Catholic religious schools in six provinces. It’s time Ontario caught up to Alberta and the other five.

This is an issue of equality and fairness, and the way to create a level playing field is to treat all students — religious or not — with generosity and understanding.

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