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Will Ontario's Catholic schools survive the next 25 years?


While 1997 was the momentous year of suppression of Catholic schools in Quebec and Newfoundland, was it a good or bad year for Catholic schools in Ontario? Keep in mind that these schools have more students than the public school system in any province except Quebec and Ontario.

Let's see what happened, beginning last winter.

Bill 104

The Conservative government of Mike Harris addressed first the matter that has been dealt with by provincial governments across the country: the consolidation of school boards. There was never any question in Canada that it would be done, but only how it would be done.

The National Assembly of Quebec and the Legislature of Newfoundland had voted to consolidate boards by merging on the basis of common language of instruction, rather than merging a denominational school board with a neighbouring board of the same denomination. Even though those actions were unconstitutional, the legislators overcame that obstacle by having the Parliament of Canada repeal that section of the Constitution. (CI, last issue).

Did Premier Harris attempt to do that? No, he did not. As in Alberta and Saskatchewan, he merged only public boards with public boards, and Catholic boards with Catholic boards. But that was not even the most impressive feature of Bill 104. With the blessing of Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and N.D.P. Leader Howard Hampton, the Premier created without controversy a brand-new school system across Ontario: French Catholic.

That is not at all the same as Quebec's new French secular school system. In fact, Ontario now has that as well, albeit a tiny system. But uniquely in Canada, beginning on January 1, 1998, Ontario has school boards that are fully Catholic, fully French. It was something that I requested in a personal submission to a committee of MPPs on May 31, 1988, as recorded in Hansard.

Who knows? Perhaps in the next decade these boards, with fewer than 90,000 pupils, could provide the salvation of English Catholic school boards with more than a half million pupils.

Pledge of Premier Harris

Here is what the Premier said at a press conference, April 24, 1997, as distributed by his office:

Q: "Premier, are you considering taking a charter amendment or some other method of eliminating the separate school system in Ontario?"

A: "No, absolutely not. We're aware of what's happening in Quebec. We think it has no application in the province of Ontario and it's not something we're looking at." ...

Q: "So as long as you're Premier of Ontario, there will be no elimination of separate school boards?"

A: "No. That's true." ...

That commitment seems solid to me.

Bill 160

While Bill 104 was strenuously opposed by the province's public school boards, which were radically reduced in number (especially in Toronto), English Catholic boards found the experience less draconian than the massive mergers in 1969.

Combined county boards came to them almost 30 years ago. However, this time hundreds of dedicated school trustees were declared surplus, and others ran again knowing the honorarium had been reduced to $5,000 a year.

But in the fall of 1997, all hell broke loose when Bill 160 was tabled in the Legislature. In fact, for two weeks teachers closed every public and separate school across the province, and walked with picket signs.

The Globe and Mail in an analysis of Bill 160 last Oct. 27 stated: "The bill also calls for equal funding for students at separate and public schools."

For the past 20 years Catholic leaders in Ontario have been begging the provincial government - Tory, Liberal, N.D.P., Tory - to close the revenue gap between public and separate school children. In the large urban areas, that per pupil differential is upwards of $1,800. Assessment-rich boards will not voluntarily hand over money to assessment-poor boards. It takes a courageous Premier and Minister of Education to order that to be done. Catholics don't say thanks by hailing the Catholic school teacher who urinated in the Minister's flower pots during his protest in the Minister's office.

There is a wise adage: "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." This hand feeds our Catholic children billions (not millions) of dollars every year.

Some Catholics have condemned the dictatorial powers in Bill 160. But the ones singled out have been in the Ontario Education Act for years. When my late father was a school inspector in the 1950's, he (as the Minister's Eastern Ontario agent) had the power to order the stoppage of all grants to a board. He never did that, but no one went ballistic over the power vested in him.

Many people trumpet the merits of local decision-making by school boards. As a former chairman of Canada's then largest school board, I used to fume that the Toronto Board of Education had the decision-making power (because it had the funds) to provide for many more preparation periods for its secondary school teachers than ours had; that it installed an indoor swimming pool in every secondary school and in many elementary schools; that it hired teachers' aides in vast numbers, that it - well, you get the picture. Thank God for children in Catholic schools that the unfairness of "local decisions" is being curbed by a strong government.

Make no mistake. It's not just Premier Harris who has come to the rescue of separate school children. P.C. Premier Bill Davis, Liberal Premier David Peterson and N.D.P. Premier Bob Rae all strengthened these kids' school system immeasurably.

The lay-led Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association has been a quietly productive voice for improvements. Patrick Daly of Hamilton, the president for the past two years, is a tower of strength around Queen's Park.

Repeal of Section 136

The Association's lawyer, Peter Lauwers, recently won a tremendously important court case for Ontario's Catholic schools. When Bill 30--the bill that completed our system from Grade 10 to Grade 13--was passed in 1986, it contained a late amendment in Section 136. By it, Catholic school boards lost the right in 1995 to prefer Catholics in hiring teachers. Mr. Lauwers pointed out that schools would not long retain an essential function as purveyors of Catholic Church teaching, if this law stayed on the statute books. In a brilliantly argued 45-page judgment on December 17, 1997, Mr. Justice Robert Sharpe agreed with him, and ruled Section 136 unconstitutional, and therefore "of no force or affect."

Dark clouds on the horizon

In the light of recent disasters in Catholic schooling in Quebec and Newfoundland, this is not time for apathy in Ontario. I see five problems that need to be addressed head-on.

First, the wealthy boards, especially public boards in Toronto and Ottawa, are putting intense leverage on the government to keep their expensive perks in the schools and in the board offices. Unless Catholic educators, English and French, keep reminding the Minister of Education that "equal per pupil funding" means sharing the wealth now, no big breakthrough will occur. I believe that being proactive is more productive than being reactive. Before doing anything else, though, Catholic educators need to say thanks for courageous features of Bill 160. If they don't, they will be complaining again next month about the unfair funding that came out of 160!

Membership on parent councils

Parent councils are an excellent innovation. This year they are in place across the province. In the beginning they were strictly advisory. Now Bill 160 is moving them into a decision-making role, like school boards. But in order to be a candidate as a Catholic school trustee one must, by Ontario law - Section 80(7) - be a Roman Catholic. The reason is obvious. You can't pass on the Catholic Faith if you don't have it. Even if there is only one non-Catholic on a Catholic school committee, as a courtesy to a friend the policy decision can become one of "lowest common denominator." Almost two years ago some school boards, like ours in Simcoe County, withstood tremendous pressure and decreed that membership on parent councils would be for Catholics - the same as membership on the board itself. Other boards, for example, Metro Toronto, caved in to the pressure, not foreseeing the upcoming change from advisory to decision-making. Now they need to re-visit the matter to get consistency, and to keep our schools Catholic.

Council of Catholic principals

To me, an unfortunate, last-minute amendment to Bill 160 removed principals and vice-principals from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, and the four other affiliates of OTF. Now they need a new body to represent them. An enemy of Catholic schools, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, is trying to entice these Catholic principals and vice principals to join a new association which it will control behind the scenes. Then some day when a vote is taken to abolish Catholic schools, a majority at that annual general meeting will vote yea, just as the Newfoundland Teachers' Association did several years ago, and The Globe and Mail editor will write: "The principals have spoken. Let's do it."

No, all Catholic school principals and VPs need to be in their own provincial council.

Umbrella boards

Catholic schools have always been publicly funded in Ontario. Jewish schools, Christian Orthodox schools, Christian Reform schools, receive no public funds. That is not fair. The Ontario government should give independent schools a per-pupil grant-in-aid. Alberta, which also has an R.C. separate school system, does that. One formula is to provide to still-independent schools one-half of the local operating costs per pupil, mostly to pay teachers' salaries. Parents still pay tuition of about $3,000. Needless to say, independent schools never get anything for construction costs. (St. Antoine Daniel Catholic School is being built at this moment in our township, at a cost of $2.87 million, largely from provincial revenue. If it were a private school, can anyone imagine it being built by parents' donations!)

I can remember as a young trustee back in 1974 that the matter came up about our Toronto Catholic School Board becoming a conduit for funds to Jewish schools in the community. The Minister of Education, after checking with government lawyers, said that such a move would cancel the constitutional guarantees given to separate school boards. Not surprisingly, that ended the discussion. Umbrella school boards are far too risky today too. Just give independent schools their own grants.

Preparation for first Sacraments

What a heading for my fifth dark cloud on the horizon! Let me hasten to affirm that children must be well prepared to receive in Grade 2 the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist for the first time, and in Grade 8 the Sacrament of Confirmation. Traditionally, in Ontario at least, this preparation was done largely by the teachers in our Catholic schools. The new emphasis is on parish preparation, either by priests or lay people. If this approach is taken to an extreme, and dedicated teachers in our schools are made to feel incompetent to do what they have done for years and years, then someone at Queen's Park is going to start asking, "Why have Catholic schools? Why not let the Church do its thing in church, and be rid of a publicly funded Catholic school system?"

In 32 years as a priest, I have watched dozens of Grade 2 and Grade 8 teachers with their pupils. A more committed body of lay men and women I can't imagine. I'm talking about a commitment to their Catholic Faith, and a real desire to pass on the practice of Faith to children entrusted to their care. It seems to me that Sacramental preparation must involve a cooperative partnership of home, church and school. If, in that preparation, parishes cut out teachers in the Catholic school, I submit they are putting at risk our Catholic school system in Ontario with its 640,000 students.

Fr. Matthews, S.J., M.Ed., hung around the Legislature from 1962 to 1993. In the third volume of his "Catholic Education and Politics in Ontario," Professor Frank Walker wrote: "The energy which he devoted to promoting the cause of separate schools represented a zeal and purity of purpose which had no parallel in Canadian history." He is now pastor in Waubaushene, Ontario, near the Martyrs' Shrine.
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Author:Matthews, Carl
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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