Canada: Ontario policy on religious schools put to test

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Oct 3 13:23:34 UTC 2007

Ontario policy on religious schools put to test

By Daina Lawrence

Updated: 12:42 a.m. ET Oct 2, 2007

Naomi Klein, the author, once noted with some scepticism that Canada
was often regarded by outsiders as the "Hippie Nation", with its
social democratic policies, legalised gay marriage and push to make
the medicinal use of marijuana lawful. But the forthcoming election in
Ontario has exposed an issue that belies Canada's free-thinking,
multicultural image. The United Nations determined eight years ago
that Ontario, one of the country's largest provinces, was violating
human rights through its discriminatory practices in funding religious

It is the only province that pays the entire cost for students who
attend Roman Catholic institutions and none of the costs for students
who attend Jewish, Islamic or other religious schools. The public
school system offers free education to all Ontario residents without
discrimination and may not take part in any religious instruction. The
Roman Catholic schools also receive public funding, while other
religious schools must be funded through private sources and tuition

Ontario's politicians have made this a defining issue in their
campaign in one of the tightest election races the province has seen
in more than a decade. The debate over religious school funding has
become one of the few issues that demonstrate a razor-sharp contrast
in the two main contender's platforms. John Tory, a Conservative,
announced prior to the election campaign's kick-off that, if he were
elected premier on October 10, the province would work to fund
non-Catholic faith-based schools provided they met the standards of a
provincial inspection.

Dalton McGuinty, Ontario premier and Liberal and the man Mr Tory is
seeking to defeat, has made it clear he supports the current system.
He says the Conservative party's plans would unravel the province's
education structure and increase segregation of people with diverse
backgrounds. In 1999 the UN Human Rights Committee ruled on the issue
following a complaint from Arieh Hollis Waldman, a Jewish parent in
Toronto whose child was attending a Hebrew private school. But the
Ontario government was not bound by this decision and six years later
the UN committee stated the province had failed to "adopt steps to
eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of
schools in Ontario".

"Canada has been branding itself as international for several years
now in terms of diversity and multiculturalism," says Richard
Nimijean, professor of Canadian studies at Carleton University
specialising in national branding. "At the end of the day Canada is
like other countries; it's trying to balance individual and collective
rights and in doing so it does get messy," says Prof Nimijean, adding
that Canada's "hippy" image is more complicated than a slogan.  The
issue has also managed to unite religious leaders in Ontario who want
the government to change the system.

The Public Education Fairness Network - created in August and composed
of religious leaders from the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Armenian
communities - is launching a slew of advertising initiatives
throughout the election campaign to urge the government to fund all
faith-based schools that meet provincial standards. But there is vocal
opposition from civil rights campaigners. "I'm totally disgusted with
Canada and Ontario . . . freedom of religion is the first freedom on
the list," says Renton Patterson, referring to the Canadian Charter of
Rights and Freedoms.

Mr Patterson is the president of Civil Rights in Public Education,
which has been campaigning for a unified public education system in
Ontario for more than two decades. "We are fighting for the rights of
children and for them not to be torn from their playmates when they
start school." Referring to Mr Tory and Mr McGuinty's positions on the
controversial topic, Mr Patterson adds that "public opinion is not on
their side".

Unlike provinces such as Newfoundland, which have done away with the
separate school system in response to public opinion, Ontario has
never held a referendum on the subject - which Mr Patterson says is
crucial. Quebec, with an assertive Catholic population, opted for a
public system where the religious separation in education has been
replaced by a division between French and English language
schools.Despite the election focus on separating education and
religion in Ontario, most people agree that any change will not come

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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