When you hear “Catholic School”, often your mind will run to a Hogwarts-style private castle with school children running from nuns in plaid skirts and blazers. But that private Catholic school reality is only one side of the religious-education coin. Ontario’s English public school boards are separated into two: non-denominational public and Catholic.
Following “O’ Canada” every morning, my classmates and I would remain standing for our school’s prayer, listening in our plain white uniform shirts with our school logo pressed over our hearts. We would walk straight from religion class to biology to learn about the theory of evolution, while a crucifix hung above the smartboard — oh the irony. This was normalcy in our publicly funded Catholic high school, as we learned our everyday academic curriculum with an ever present and unique (to say the least) Catholic twist on most of our subjects.
But as Canada becomes increasingly secular and religiously diverse, do these publicly funded Catholic schools still have a place in modern education? The issue at hand may not even be on the teaching of religion in the classroom, but rather on its funding coming from the public.
Is it finally time to merge the two public schooling systems into one and leave religion class as a thing of the past?
Separated Education: A Not So Ancient History
Under section 93 of the Charter of Rights and Freedom, first enacted in 1867 as the British North America Act, provinces are given autonomy to make decisions relating to their educational structure, including separate schools. From this, Ontario established their separate school systems, initially dividing it between two major sects of Christianity: Catholic and Protestant.
“The funding of separation of the Catholic system has to do with sort of immigration issues and the demographics of different migrant groups to Canada,” explains Professor Jamie Scott of York’s Department of Humanities.
“Originally, Quebec and the funding of Catholic schools there had to do very much with the succeeding and keeping Quebec in the country. That kind of mentality, the ‘two nations’ approach, I think sort of spilled into provincial policy on occasion when religion entered the discussion.”
As the times changed however, this became increasingly unbalanced, as Ontario’s current school boards are either non-denominational French and English public school boards, or Catholic school boards, both French and English
Even with only roughly 30 per cent of the country identifying as Catholic, over half of the school boards in Ontario follow that religion, with 37 out of the 72 being publicly funded Catholic school boards.
But this Catholic influence over Ontario doesn’t just stop at high school.
Recently, Premier Doug Ford attempted to pass legislation that would allow for Canada Christian College to grant Arts and Science degrees as a university. Its president, Charles McVety, who in his past has made derogatory statements against the LGBTQ+ community, and to other religions such as Islam, further represents the problems within the Catholic ideology today.
Canada Christian College “has a long-standing close relationship with various forms of Canadian conservative politics, both at the federal and provincial levels,” explains Scott. “Senior officials or administrators at Canada Christian College are on record as expressing opinions that I think are pretty intolerant towards minority groups of one sort or another in Canada.”
Love Thy Neighbour? A Need for Inclusivity and Acceptance
McVety’s remarks on homosexuality, along with his placement as a president at a major faith-based college, just further amplifies this longstanding association of hatred with faith. Is this what comes with mixing higher education with a higher power?
However, attempts have been made in recent history to try and bring safety and acceptance to Catholic school boards across the province.
Bill 13, also known as the Accepting Schools Act, passed in 2012. This was put in place to create a supportive and safe environment for students to learn in, with a specific acknowledgement and protection for LGBTQ+ communities. And just last year, the Toronto Catholic School Board finally amended its code of conduct to include more extensive protections for LGBTQ+ students and staff.
But when this is met with Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee Michael Anthony Del Grande making statements comparing gender expression and identity to that of “pedophilia, cannibalism or bestiality”, questions are raised about the progressiveness of Catholic institutions.
Often when looking into faith-based schooling, promises and actions turn out to be two very different things that often don’t reflect one another.
“There are people within the faith who take the Bible and its teachings literally, causing these discriminatory feelings and ideologies to come to light.”
“In Catholic schooling, topics like sexual education were also approached from a religious lens, prioritzing abstinence-only sex education, and dismantling queer identities,” says Natalia Morales Caceres, a third-year film production student who graduated from a publicly funded Catholic high school in 2017.
Matthew Zanon, Catholic Education Centre representative for the Faculty of Education Student Association (FESA) argues these criticisms come from a place of misunderstanding Catholic teachings.
“Students need to be aware of the facts when it comes to the Catechism so that they may understand the reason for things being a certain way. At no point should Catholic educators be forcing their personal opinions onto their students. They should teach them what they need to know and allow for them to interpret the teachings in a way that is meaningful to them.”
“With this being said,” Zanon continues, “there are people within the faith who take the Bible and its teachings literally, causing these discriminatory feelings and ideologies to come to light.”
As Zanon explained, personal opinions of educators have no place in the teaching of morals to an impressionable student. But if your morals are based in the faith you teach, how could a student learn objectively in an environment in which they may feel unwelcome?
Can You Separate Faith and Religion?
In these contexts, it is important to acknowledge the difference between teaching religion, and teaching faith. Religion itself can be taught through an objective, or even secular lens, when looking at its historical or cultural significance. Scott explains this by highlighting how these concepts differ in separate institutions of learning.
“There are seminaries and theological colleges and so forth, where people who are believers go to train for professional religious positions: priests, rabbis, Imams, so forth. That’s teaching faith at an institution that is faith-based,” Scott says.
“That doesn’t mean to say in secular institutions,” Scott continues, “like the provincially or federally funded university systems or public schools systems, that there’s not a place for teaching religion as a social, political, economic or cultural subject.”
The issue arises when faith is taught, thereby impacting and enforcing spiritual beliefs upon impressionable students. Is the idea of being able to teach faith, in and of itself, paradoxical?
Matthew Zanon explains that integrating faith into students’ education is crucial for their growth of their spiritual beliefs.
“Catholic students need guidance from adults in their faith journeys to help direct them and teach them about their faith. The catechism of the Catholic Church describes all teachings and beliefs of the faith,” he says.
Assistant Professor of Children, Childhood and Youth Studies Gurbir Singh Jolly explains the distinction between the forces of religion and faith are difficult to trace, as they are often intermingled.
“Educators and students do not leave our faith at the door before entering a classroom. An educator who is an observant Muslim, for example, does not stop believing in justice, mercy, and inclusion — core dynamics of Islamic ethics — when she engages her students.
“As a Christian, I do not abandon my belief that I should ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ when working with students. Neither example requires the educator to mention The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) or Jesus or matters conventionally coded as ‘religious.’ And yet, in both cases, faith informs pedagogy,” Jolly says.
The Multi-religious Modern Canada
Another issue arises when looking at the denominations that are expressed in public school boards across the province. Christianity, more specifically Catholicism, is the only strain of religion with publicly funded schools, even though Canada has no official religion, and the country is, for all intents and purposes, multicultural.
Times have changed since 1867 however, and Chrisitanity no longer acts as the religious default.
Professor Jamie Scott explains how this broadening of Canada’s diverse religious communities comes in part due to new migration into the country.
“Migration has changed. There are large numbers of migrants who are not Christian, first of all, Jewish migrants, and then of course Muslim, Hindus, Sikhs and so forth. There’s diversity within each of those groups — they’re not uniform — but amongst them there are significant numbers of adherents to each of those traditions who believe very much in colouring their education with a religious pencil to some extent, maybe even to a large extent,” Scott says.
“And so why they should not be treated similarly to Catholics seems to me to be an odd form of discrimination.”
Regarding dicrimination, Ontario education historically has been formed from a white Catholic, or Anglosaxon viewpoint. As Singh Jolly explains, issues lie not only with religious diversity, but also with cultural and ethnic representation of Canada’s Christian population.
“Immigrants tend to be far more religiously observant than Anglo-Canadians, typically for at least two to three generations. Yearly, Christians form the largest number of Canada’s immigrants. Indeed, if not for immigration, Canadian Christianity would be in even steeper decline.
“Not discussing religious experience in schools risks stiffening how freely many children of immigrants and children of colour can share their perspectives and their concerns,” Singh Jolly continues.
Michael Gravelle, Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in Thunder Bay-Superior North expresses his support for public and separate schools, citing their widespread effectiveness.
“The system … hasn’t caught up with the fact that there are now these larger ethno-religious groups. As is almost always the case with issues of such sensitivity, politicians run frightened of it.”
“We have an education system in Ontario that works for everyone, and I believe that continued support for our Catholic education system is an important part of that success,” Gravelle says.
But can a system that solely expresses the Catholic faith in its curriculum truly work for everyone?
The United Nations Human Rights Committee declared in 1999 that Ontario’s funding for Catholic education, while refusing funding for other religions education, was discriminatory. But under protection from that 1867 ruling, Ontario has no obligation to create change, by including funding for other religions, or by ceasing public funding for Catholic education.
And not much since has really changed.
“The system is in a bit of a time warp,” explains Scott. “It hasn’t caught up with the fact that there are now these larger ethno-religious groups. As is almost always the case with issues of such sensitivity, politicians run frightened of it.”
Kaitland Jelot, a fourth-year English student and a previous attendee of Catholic schools, suggests there be further mandatory introduction of world culture and religion in both the curriculum and school activities, as to broaden students’ views beyond a solely Catholic perspective.
“Culture is something that both makes us unique, but also should bring us together to know more about each other and to embrace each other. I think the Catholic school boards should do something along those lines, to have more awareness assemblies and events about current societal situations,” Jelot says.
“These issues disproportionately impact children of immigrants and children of colour,” Singh Jolly adds. “Let’s not forget that.”
Students Look to the Future
It’s hard to say what the future will be for Cathlic education in Ontario, but allowing previous attendees to express their opinion and experiences allows for a greater understanding of how faith-based learning truly affects its pupils.
Singh Jolly identifies that learning in a Catholic school allowed him to learn how to use faith to explore grander questions of ethics.
“Because the ethics informing our pedagogy was explicitly identified — racism is bad because God says so — we had an explicit point-of-reference against which we could explore our ethics,” Singh Jolly says. “If God has nothing to do with racism being bad, we had to work out what logic and/or authority rendered racism unethical. Catholic school taught me to ask, ‘Who says so? According to whom? Why should I believe this?’”
Noah, a fourth-year computer science student at Queens University, who asked to only be referred to by his first name, however, feels that Catholic schools do have a place in modern education, but for those who wish to learn from a faith-based perspective.
“Having the choice to choose if you want to learn in that environment alongside your faith is one I don’t take for granted, he says.
That choice of faith-based learning is crucial, as the influence of Catholicism on curriculum runs irrefutably deep. The fact that Ontario funds solely Catholic education demonstrates how historical religious preference still impacts modern education.
“When studying in Catholic school, every subject (down to math and science) had to, at its core, encompass Catholic values,” explains Morales Caceres. “Although it was these subjects that were rarely affected, classes such as ‘world religions’ were incredibly biased, and often painted other religions in a negative light rooted in stereotypes.”