In the Ontario provincial election campaign, the issue of public funding for faith-based schools has dominated discussions between candidates and voters.
The opposition Progressive Conservative Party, under leader John Tory, has proposed extending public funding to all faith-based schools in the province.
Currently in Ontario the public system is based on an old division of responsibilities between "secular" schools and "separate" Catholic schools. It's a separation that pre-dates Canada's 1867 union as a country.
As outlined this weekend in an interesting article by Lynda Hurst in the Toronto Star, the population in Ontario in the 1800s consisted of a Protestant majority and a vulnerable Catholic minority. In the city of York, which later became Toronto, Northern Irish and Scottish Protestants did not like the arrival of thousands of Irish Catholics between 1845 and 1849. After many attempts at integrating the Catholics into the public school system, two laws were passed in 1855 and 1863 that gave Ontario's religious minority the right to finance a separate system by directing their property taxes to that aim.
Ontario's population has changed dramatically since then. The province is now a diverse, multicultural demographic reality. Religious groups -- Jewish, Muslim and Sikh to name just three -- have financed their own schools for those parents who wish to educate their children in their preferred religious setting.
What John Tory is proposing is to direct public funding to these schools with the object of ensuring that these schools follow the Ontario curriculum. Why should Catholic schools receive funding, while all these others do not, he asks? Is this not better than allowing these students to possibly drift away from a standardized curriculum? It may be one approach to fairness.
Some immigrant groups have applauded this proposal, but many voters seem perplexed by it or opposed to it.
The ruling Liberal Party under Dalton McGuinty has jumped on this issue and labelled it divisive and bad for the province. The Liberals advocate a strong central education system where children of all faiths come together and learn together. Under an umbrella of shared values and diversity, of multicultural integration with one curriculum, lies a better road for education, they say.
Personally, I'm in favour of keeping schools as secular as possible. Religion has an important role to play in society, but it should not form the basis of a separate education system. We must learn about each other and about other religions, but not build ideological walls between us. I'm concerned that this proposal may result in segregationist tendencies that are not positive for a multicultural society.
What occurred in Ontario in the 1800s was a historical precedent that, in my opinion, should not be amplified and used as a model for the 21st century.
Voters go to the polls on October 10th. We'll see what they say.