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Catholic Schools: Separate But Equal Funding

As Ontario's Catholic schools continue to oppose gay-straight alliances, many are asking why we're still funding the schools at all. We look into the history of Catholic school funding in Ontario.

St. Paul Catholic School, No. 409 Queen Street East at Power Street, January 24, 1919. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1017.

At the upcoming rally in Queen’s Park this Sunday to support gay-straight alliances in Roman Catholic schools across Ontario, we easily imagine students holding up signs proclaiming “Equality or Bust.” Forty years ago, placards with that message were also held up by pupils, but at a mass rally at Maple Leaf Gardens to urge the provincial government to fully fund separate secondary schools beyond grade 10. The current debate about the appropriateness of providing public money for religious education is the latest manifestation of an issue that has bedevilled Ontario educators and politicians since the days of the Family Compact.

There was a time when education in Ontario was headed down a non-denominational path. Back in the 1840s when, depending on the day, the province was known as Upper Canada or Canada West, Egerton Ryerson championed a “common school” system for all students regardless of their faith. While Ryerson envisioned a system free of church influences, politics scuttled his plans. Since the Protestant minority in Lower Canada/Canada East had obtained the right to their own schools, the Catholic minority felt they merited the same treatment. By giving the minorities funding, the religious majorities in both Canadas could be satisfied for a few minutes before their next squabble.

Despite his reservations, Ryerson agreed to clauses in a series of acts beginning in 1841 that established separate schools in the colony’s educational system (Toronto’s first, St. Paul, opened within a year). Though opposition was fierce—Protestant papers imagined “popish plots” galore—the establishment of a separate school system seemed secure following the passage of the Scott Act in 1863. Even then, there was a provision that later proved annoying for rural Catholics: “no person shall be deemed a supporter of any Separate School unless he resides within three miles (in a direct line) of the Site of the School House.” Those who lived four miles away were out of luck until a Canadian Supreme Court ruling nearly a century later.

Yet few supporters of full funding quote the Commons Schools Act or Scott Act. Instead, they point to the document that created modern Canada, the British North America Act of 1867. Section 93 covered the separate school situations in Ontario and Quebec by guaranteeing the rights of those that already existed. By the 20th century, the consensus was that the laws on the books covered funding for separate schools up to grade 10. Beyond that, students either entered the public system for free or coughed up tuition fees for private schools that covered the remaining secondary school grades.

William Davis with group from Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, 1970s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5385.

Of the attempts prior to the 1980s to secure full funding, one that came close was the Provincial Education Program campaign of the late 1960s, where the Catholic Church used leaflets, letters, public meetings, and sermons to rally the cause. While they succeeded in gaining support from the provincial Liberals and NDP, the campaign caused a backlash among many non-Catholics. While pro-funding supporters argued out of claims of fairness, opponents ranged from old-fashioned bigots to newspaper editorials similar to one in the Star which believed a fully separate school system would not promote “a tolerant and harmonious society.” Internal divisions were also apparent among Catholics: there was surprise when future cardinal Emmett Carter initially backed a proposal to move operations of London’s Catholic Central secondary school to the city’s public school board.

At a rally sponsored by a Catholic high school student association that drew an overflow crowd to Maple Leaf Gardens on October 25, 1970, Minister of Education William Davis told the audience not to “hold out any false hopes” that funding would be extended. He was as good as his word: nearly a year later, on the eve of the 1971 election campaign, Davis, now Premier, rejected the idea on grounds that it opened up the doors to a fragmented education system. He believed full funding could be “tantamount to the abandonment of the secondary and post-secondary educational system as it exists today, in which the education of the student, while it reflects the ethical and spiritual values of the community, and while teaching respect and tolerance for all religions and creeds, remains, nonetheless, non-denominational and non-sectarian in character.” Though the Liberals and NDP campaigned in support of full funding, Davis’s Progressive Conservatives won the election. Case closed.

Or was it?

Headline, the Globe and Mail, June 13, 1984.

Flash forward to the end of Davis’s tenure. On June 12, 1984, he shocked Queen’s Park by announcing that as of September 1985, starting with one grade per year, full funding would be extended to separate secondary schools. Indicating that he hoped the move would heal “a long and heartfelt controversy,” Davis received a standing ovation from all parties in the legislature. Families would no longer have to pay up to $1,100 a year in tuition to send their kids to high schools that would no longer be private, while officials in cities like Toronto looked forward to easing their overcrowded conditions with new facilities. Some concessions were forced onto separate school boards: they would have to accept any students and, over the next 10 years, had to agree to hire any non-Catholic teachers laid off from the public system due to shifting enrolments.

There was backlash among traditional Protestant Tory supporters, who couldn’t believe what Davis had dropped on them. This betrayal was among the factors that helped sink the Big Blue Machine in the wake of the 1985 election, which saw several anti–full funding candidates run for office. New Premier Frank Miller indicated he would delay the implementation of funding, but his fatally small minority government had no chance to act. Under David Peterson’s Liberals, full funding rolled out as intended and sparked turmoil in some communities as public schools were closed or threatened with closure.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, June 12, 1985.

Yet Ontario’s publicly funded separate school system was beginning to seem out of step with actions elsewhere. Denominational schools went by the wayside in Newfoundland and Quebec in the late 1990s. The United Nations human rights committee declared full funding discriminatory in 1999. There was also the question of why, beyond historical and political reasons, Catholics merited a school system while other faiths didn’t. The status quo rolled along until the provincial election campaign of 2007, when Progressive Conservative leader John Tory proposed extending funds to other religions. The success of Tory’s proposal among the public is one of the reasons we’re covering Tim Hudak during the current election.

Where does the full funding issue go from here? The refusal of bodies like the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board to heed provincial guidelines on equity and inclusivity in relation to gay students may satisfy staunch adherents of the faith, but such demonstrations of bullying damages their public image—and much more seriously, their credibility in the eyes of many Ontarians. Apart from the Greens, who back one secular system, the major parties contesting the current election are barely rocking the boat in terms of suggesting changes to the funding formula or addressing how to confront Catholic boards on their discriminatory actions. All that’s certain is that the debate over public funding has hardly been settled by the legislation that was supposed to do just that.

Additional material from History of Separate Schools of Ontario and Minority Report 1950 by E.F Henderson, Arthur Kelly, J.M. Pigott, Henri Saint-Jacques (Toronto: English Catholic Education Association of Ontario, 1950), Catholic Education and Politics in Upper Canada by Franklin A. Walker (Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1955), Catholic Education and Politics in Ontario Volume III by Franklin A. Walker (Toronto: Catholic Education Foundation of Ontario, 1986), and the following newspapers: the June 13, 1984 edition of the Globe and Mail; the February 10, 1968, October 26, 1970, September 1, 1971, June 13, 1984, and June 3, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 26, 1970 edition of the Telegram.


  • Veronika

    I find it incredible how your article talks about ‘equality’ in education and funding when Catholics faced such tremendous discrimination in this country for decades. When Premier Davis finally allowed the Catholics full-funding – which was guaranteed in the Constitution- it came how many years after it had been guaranteed? Nice discrimination there eh?
    Protestants AND Catholics both came to Canada in the early history of this country yet Catholics were always treated as second class citizens. No need to look far, ask the Irish.
    Furthermore re. gay-straight alliance clubs, Catholic schools already DO teach that we are all created equal in the image of God, bullying is terribly cruel, discrimination due to factors such as faith, gender, sexual orientation etc are a sin — so why do the schools need to allow in these agenda driven ‘clubs?’
    Why should a Catholic school allow a Church of Scientology Club either?
    By the way, you seem to forget that Catholics pay taxes too.
    It is not just the invisible ‘public’ purse paying for Catholic or public schools. Catholics make up the public as well as conservative Jews, Muslims, and Evangelical Christians, who I can bet would not support these clubs either. Many btw non-Catholics send their kids to Catholic schools because they are such good schools and are traditoinally-minded in nature. So, before you start raking the Catholics over the coals, look at other groups too. Isn’t there a school in Toronto that uses their lunch period to bring in an imam for religious instruction and segregation (the girls sit behind the boys, menstruating girls are further banished.) So before you get on your high horse about those nasty Catholics, look around.
    But then again weren’t Catholics always an easy target?

    • Anonymous

      “Catholics faced such tremendous discrimination in this country for decades”


      Boo-fucking-hoo! The catholic church has been an abomination to our society for hundreds and hundreds of years. The fact that the church has a pope really underscores how far away from the actual Christianity they are. In fact the idea of a “pope” in of itself is heresy.

      • TrueNorth960

        The Catholic church is one of the few constants that has held Western society together over the centuries.

        • Shoebutton

          Yeah, ’cause the Spanish Inquisition,witch burnings, Magdalene’s laundries(slavery), human trafficking(Spain’s lost children),residential schools, etc.,etc., were all really cool ideas.

          • Du_gave

            You’re citing urban legends, especially referencing the inquisition.

          • Cynic

            So it never happened? There are torture devices on public display in museums that were used to test the faith of captives that would like to argue with your urban legend assumptions.
            Do you also think the Holocaust never happened, and that babies are left under cabbage leaves by storks? I’m curious.

    • Stilts

      “Furthermore re. gay-straight alliance clubs, Catholic schools already DO teach that we are all created equal in the image of God, bullying is terribly cruel, discrimination due to factors such as faith, gender, sexual orientation etc are a sin — so why do the schools need to allow in these agenda driven ‘clubs?’”

      Because of bigots like you who reduce the thousands of LGBT students at Catholic schools to sinister “agendas”.

      • Du_gave

        Disagreeing with a sexual lifestyle is not bigotry or hate speech. Your figures are hyperbolized.

    • Randy McDonald

      “Catholic schools already DO teach that we are all created equal in the image of God, bullying is terribly cruel, discrimination due to factors such as faith, gender, sexual orientation etc are a sin”

      Official church teachings _do_ justify discrimination against non-heterosexuals insofar as it’s necessary to preserve the social order (, the future Pope (writing in 1992) saying it’s entirely appropriate to discriminate against non-heterosexuals in certain jobs, and arguing that anti-discrimination legislation would only justify non-heterosexuals and, besides, good closeted queers wouldn’t need protection anyway.

      With these teachings, even with an emphasis on the humanity shared by heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals alike, the Church creates and–to an extent–endorses a hostile environment for those young people who happen not to be born straight.

      • Du_gave

        The lady gaga doctrine of being born that way is false. You are born with a gender that naturally sides you as male or female. This exists for procreative purposes. All else is sexual leisure and choice.

        • Historian

          How about people born intersex? You suffer from astonishingly narrow views of singular dichotomies when science shows that human sexuality and even sexual biology is considerably more gradated than a polar duality.

    • Jordan

      “Catholics pay taxes” ahaha, yes. As do Satanists. So do all people who don’t want to face jail time.
      The Catholic Church, however, does NOT pay taxes. The Catholic Church is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. This means it is exempt from corporate income and property taxes. The fact it gets extreme tax breaks (especially considering its vast wealth) but supports the most backward agenda is very questionable.

      It has apologized for the witch burnings and the crusades so I can’t hold that against it anymore. Its modern actions are just as troubling though;
      However, how can you be in such strong support an organization that tells people in the most AIDS stricken countries of the world to not use condoms? Or that attacks nuns for spending too much time fighting poverty rather than fighting same-sex marriage?

      The ignorance you display on other religions and their practices is too extensive to cover, I’ll only say that it shows the typical view I encounter from those in your religion, with extremely rare exceptions.

      Those modern blunders show that the church hasn’t grow out of its historical habit of viciously attacking anyone who holds different views or agenda(s). Catholics are an “easy target” because they invite criticism due to the vocal Medieval Age views they push.

      • Du_gave

        The church has yet to viciously attack anyone. Cite some real examples as opposed to urban legend. If teaching morality is medieval, what does immorality qualify as?

    • Historian

      I think the fundamental problem here isn’t a history of discrimination, and I would venture to suggest that you raising that issue is a false argument designed to draw attention from the problem at hand. After all, have the Jews been any LESS discriminated against? How about neopagans, given every epithet which two thousand + years of revision can apply? How about the indigenous faiths of this country, stamped out and spat on by Christian colonizers?

      Every faith has been oppressed.

      What matters here is why the oppression which the Catholics have faced is more important, such that I as a non-Catholic, and indeed as a non-Christian, am somehow obliged to support one SPECIFIC faith’s education?

      The public schools are non denominational.

      And that is the problem. I FULLY support every person, EVERY PERSON, having a right to their own faith. Catholic, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Pagan, Animist, Shintoist, Islamic, Jewish.. I mean, the list is a heck of a lot longer than the schisms within the Christian portion of the spectrum of human religion.
      So if the public is expected to tolerantly allow freedom of religion as we should be, how does that reconcile itself to fully funding ONE faith’s educational efforts?
      It doesn’t.
      The only reason why that relic of the past remains is historical, and this culture of victimization you seem to be outlining, which flagrantly ignores every other faith having been oppressed at various times in history. Drop the assumption that Catholicism is somehow more deserving. It is no more deserving than any other faith cherished by the citizens of this country.
      If we want to be multicultural as a nation, and as a people, we should not be continuing to elevate one single faith above others, holding it equal to the catch-all of public schools which serve every OTHER portion of our citizenry.

  • David Demchuk

    Veronika, all of your problems would be solved if we had one secular public school system as we do in most other provinces across the country. Parent/Church-funded private Catholic schools would be formed (much in the same way as other private schools–religious and secular–have been formed) to teach your children your particular beliefs in the high-quality way that you’d be no doubt happy to support–and the secular system would be there for our children so that they wouldn’t have to sit through outrageous and offensive anti-gay (and, judging from your comments, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew and anti-Protestant) propaganda as part of their education. There were valid historic reasons to ensure Catholics had a separate public school system when the BNA act was written, but times have changed and there is no need for the status quo to continue.

    • Norokan

      I agree with you and believe strongly that we should not separate children in our society based on religion. Canadians are multi cultural and should be raised to be tolerant and respectful of others. The fact that one religion has a separate school board that is publicly funded is really a horrifying fact in this day and age.

  • Distraktor

    Veronica, here’s what *I* find incredible: that you haven’t noticed that Ontario isn’t just about Protestants and Catholics anymore. And Catholicism is now the MAJORITY religion. What might have started off as a minority protection 150 years ago today is enjoyed as a majority privilege.

    And I’m not sure why you’re so opposed to bullying. If the bishops didn’t actively bully Ontario’s politicians, there would be no publicly funded Catholic school system. The matter has never been put to a vote of any kind. And whatever Constitutional guarantees you are imagining substantially vanished when Lower Canada (Quebec) did away with their end of the bargain (public funding for Protestant schools in Catholic Quebec) a decade ago. It wasn’t complicated. They have a completely public public school system. Weird, eh? They’re using public dollars to pay for public schools! What a revolutionary concept! And if any parent would prefer to send their child to a Baptist school or a Jewish school or a Catholic school, it’s their right. But they don’t have the right to demand that OTHERS pay for it!

  • John Drake

    Ontario’s Catholic schools are so important to the Church that the Vatican spends a billion dollars each year to maintain the required separate administration. Oops, I meant to say zero dollars: Catholic schools are 100% publicly funded. (Your tax form lies.) The “gift” of Catholic education is actually a “theft”.
    Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Pentecostals (etc.) pay for Catholic schools, yet they are openly discriminated against in hiring and admissions. If Catholicism teaches you that this is somehow fair, then I have to wonder if Satanism could do much worse to the fabric of our society.

  • Anonymous

    Honestly? I’m always surprised when I hear people bashing Catholic schools. They’re not as bad as people make them to be – it’s the media that makes you think this. There are so many other religious schools that get equally funded as well! But i guess you are too dense to see that.

    Also, torontothegreat: can you please live in our times and stop thinking of the past? GET OVER IT.
    Another point, why should a religion change the tradition? Would you ask a Muslim to change his religious lifestyle because a minority wants you to change. This is such a controversial subject, if homosexuals want to get married – start your own religion.

    • RM

      Whether the schools are good or not isn’t the issue. They’re religious schools that are being funded by the public, when similar situations don’t exist for other faith-based schools. This is inherently discriminatory and has been denounced by the UN repeatedly. The point isn’t that Catholic schools are bad (though having been to one I can say that the addition of religion gives it huge weaknesses in several areas), the point is that they’re inherently unfair.

      “if homosexuals want to get married – start your own religion.”
      ….these are students we’re talking about. It’s not about marriage, it’s about equal treatment and human decency. Please actually pay attention to the issue at hand. If gay students want an environment that doesn’t constantly remind them of how inferior they apparently are, they deserve it. It’s that simple. You can’t just say “then go to another school”. That’s like saying that you should be allowed to refuse to hire gay people because they could be hired somewhere else. The government doesn’t endorse discrimination, and schools should be no exception.

      Religion disgusts me when it’s used like this. One person thinks their beliefs justify discrimination? That’s wrong. A lot of people believe it for the same unjustifiable reason? Well then, I guess that’s okay! Religion can do a lot more than beating down on kids, and it would be nice to see the Church and school boards actually step up to the plate for once.

      • Shoebutton

        The Catholic school board does use discriminatory hiring practices as all teachers and board members most “prove” they are Catholic and are fired for being gay.This information is available on the website.The Catholic school board should not be allowed to use tax payer money to discriminate against those very same taxpayers.

  • HaveWeNotGrownAsASociety

    Putting public funds into the Catholic system is openly discriminatory.

  • Nsorokan

    Separating children on the basis of religion does not promote tolerance of others but encourages segregation. If we encourage the separation of children by religion are we not sending some very disturbing messages?

  • AL

    great article. exactly what i needed. more exhaustive and extensive in terms of information provided than any ‘academic’ source. TY for this.