Province reversed centuries of education based on faith to adopt a new public system
The intense animosity between people of different faiths was bound to spill on to the ice. Parents, fans, they all encouraged it among the hockey players at school.
Such was the violence of Newfoundland winters. “The hockey matches between Protestants and Catholics in Grand Falls where I grew up were legendary,” remembers former premier Roger Grimes. “These were wars on ice, and designed to be so. One of the highlights of the winter was to see the bloodbath.”
It was a grim fact of life in that province under its historically sectarian education system in which the churches ran the schools with money from the public purse. Besides the rivalries, students and neighbours were divided along religious lines, often driven on half-empty buses across town to schools that were homogenous but under serviced.
By the 1990s, the tensions had eased, but the economic burden of too many groups operating too many schools remained. That is, until a dramatic and complex political move uncoupled schools from the churches, turning the education of Newfoundland youngsters on its head, from one that was entirely denominational, to one that entirely was not.
Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory now wants to do precisely the opposite in this province, extending public funding to all religious schools provided they follow the provincial curriculum if he’s elected next month.
It’s “very difficult to look people in the eye who are Hindu, or Greek Orthodox or Muslim and say, `I know we made arrangements for that faith (Roman Catholic), but not for you,'” he said Friday explaining his policy choice.
Even those who disagree with his plan seem to understand his logic, except they’d prefer to end public funding for all religious schools.
Extracting Newfoundland’s schools from the church’s grasp was no easy task. The provincial Liberals of the day had to try twice, holding two referenda on the subject, and obtaining two constitutional amendments from the federal parliament, to get it done.
Most educators today say the sea change was for the better. But nearly a decade after the province changed course from sectarian to secular, the controversy and hard-feelings linger. So do the fears, especially among Catholics, that what happened in Newfoundland could play out in other places, such as Ontario, which funds Catholic but not other religious schools.
The Newfoundland experience, in fact, served as a wake-up call for Ontario Catholics, to do everything in their power to keep their school lights on.
Missionaries from the Church of England set up the first schools in Newfoundland in the 1720’s, beginning its long history of entrenched religious differences in schools. Church control was so profound that it became entrenched in the Terms of Union, which spelled out Newfoundland’s entry into Canada in 1949, making it a constitutional matter.
A first referendum in 1995, held by then-premier Clyde Wells, passed by a slim margin. A change to the Terms of Union required a constitutional amendment, and thenprime minister Jean Chrétien vowed to push ahead with it.
The Catholic and Pentecostal churches were especially vocal on the streets and from the pulpit. They launched high-profile ad campaigns and canvassed door to door.
Their Ontario counterparts also joined in the debate. Catholic school trustees as well as church officials lobbied the federal government, fearing that a Newfoundland precedent could lead to abolishing Catholic schools in Ontario too.
Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter admonished Jean Chrétien in a letter to protect minority rights. “If your government rubber stamps (the Newfoundland amendment),” he wrote, “how can it in principle resist similar requests from voting majorities in Alberta, Quebec and Ontario?”
Roger Grimes, at the time education minister, says the plan unravelled since it still allowed for religious schools where numbers warranted, putting an effective public system at risk. So the government, now under the leadership of Brian Tobin, drew up a new referendum, this time removing churches from the education landscape.
The province pushed the need to save millions by ending overlap. “We couldn’t see a justification to fund four to five separate systems when there was no evidence in our view they were providing a higher quality education,” Roger Grimes says.
Other critics noted how unfair it was that a secular education simply wasn’t available.
Newfoundland was also experiencing its own kind of “Quiet Revolution” in which the churches were being met with increasing skepticism, says Bill McKim, a psychology professor at Memorial University, who edited a book about denominational education. “The memories of Mount Cashel were still fresh and many people were sympathetic to getting churches out of the school system,” Bill McKim says, referring to the sex abuse scandal at a Catholic orphanage.
Voters approved the measure in 1997, this time with 73 per cent of the vote. A court injunction failed, and by the next year, the province had a single, secular system.
There was tremendous upheaval. In some cases, thousands of students, teachers and staff had to move buildings. Dozens of schools were shuttered. In some cases, even the names of schools were changed to non-religious ones.
“One day we had Catholic schools, the next we did not. I don’t have good feelings about it,” says Bonaventure Fagan, who fiercely opposed the changes as a Catholic administrator, and is now president of the Canadian Catholic School Trustees Association.
“It took us through a period of a great deal of animosity,” he says. “It harnessed the old feelings of bigotry (against Catholics) that some used to foster their own aims.”
He blames the political loss on “misleading” referenda questions, and after years of squabbling, people were simply tired of the debate.
“The worst model we can have in education is the reductionist model,” Mr. Fagan says. “In other words, everybody goes to the same box, and comes out of the same box, with the same imprint. That’s not life. Not everybody wants the same thing for their kids.”
The controversy still simmers there. Mr. Fagan says many parents today still chafe at not having a choice.
Long-time Roman Catholic teacher and administrator Brian Shortall, who now leads the school boards’ association in Newfoundland, says it was only after the fact that many realized “the depth of feeling to the way things used to be. Some individuals took a long time to accept the fact that a fundamental social, cultural foundation was being changed.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Shortall, who was superintendent of the St. John’s Catholic board before and after it was switched into a public board, said the changes have been good for the province.
“At the end of the day, our overall academic performance and the expansion of programs within the buildings reflected positive gains as a result of the reorganization,” he says.
It was an intensely political fight. Mr. Fagan was so impassioned he wrote a book, which he called “Trial“.
Last year he gave a presentation to trustees from across the country, outlining how Newfoundland Catholics’ rights were dissolved and warning them to take action to prevent the same elsewhere.
The trustees heard that in many cases, people’s faith did not rally them to speak up, or that political or other affiliations trumped faith. Mr. Fagan recalls how “people in positions of influence, at the political level or the business level, didn’t have much to say.”
“Our point,” Mr. Fagan says, “was that Catholics simply cannot be indifferent to their system and think that they’re going to have it. You have to be committed to it and have an active faith.
“You’re only going to fight when you’re committed,” he says.
Ontario Catholics took notice. The Newfoundland transformation was viewed as a complete debacle. As one Catholic education official, who asked not to be named, puts it, “We saw how it could happen, and it put everyone in Ontario on alert.”
Ontario Catholics learned that “a good offence is the best defence.” The biggest lesson was the idea of erecting a strong and effective “infrastructure” that would be a formidable force against anyone trying to dismantle it.
Bernard Murray, who heads the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association, says, “Catholic education in Ontario is supported by a strong infrastructure of organizations.”
That includes the Institute for Catholic Education, which promotes publicly- funded Catholic schools, the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, parents groups, teachers’ unions, and the trustees association, which regularly lobbies provincial politicians.
Any assault on the system and “there would be a great backlash,” Mr. Murray says. He points out that Catholic education has the support of all three main parties in Ontario. But politics can be fickle. In Newfoundland, many pointed to the sanctity of the Constitution and its enshrined rights of religious education. Some make the same argument here. But as Newfoundland shows, even the Constitution can be changed.
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Jim McAl, after a September 16, 2007 article by Andrew Chung in The Toronto Star