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culture

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.

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