Recently, there was yet another gay teen who was bullied and took his own life. Jamie Hubley was 15 year old student at an Ottawa, Ontario high school. I firmly believe that the schools need to do a far better job to combat bullying and discrimination, but that is not really the topic of this post. What caught my attention was one detail of Jamie Hubley's story that connects with other problems in Ontario. The detail was that Hubley originally went to a Catholic school, where he experienced some very severe bullying. His parents did what they could; they offered support and moved him into a public school, but bullying continued there. Many people outside of Ontario may not know this, but a great many catholic schools in Ontario are not private schools, as would be the case for any other religious school. In Ontario we have two separate publically funded school boards; the regular public board and a catholic school board. Residents indicate on their property tax bills whether they wish their tax funds support either the public board or the catholic board. To me, this arrangement flies in the face both of the separation of church and state and of the very principles of public education.
It should be pointed out that the separation of church and state is not quite as sacrosanct in Canada as it is in the United States and, less than a century ago, most schools had a religious affiliation. My parents grew up in Montreal and, when they went to school, there were two school boards: one protestant and one catholic (actually there were four - protestant and catholic each had an English and French board). Now my parents are anglophone and Jewish, so any school board was affiliated to a religion not their own. Some time ago, the system was overhauled and the church was taken out of the public school system. The Catholic board became the French school board, while the protestant board became the English school board (English catholic and French protestant had little enrolment and were merged into the larger boards). So Quebec has removed the church from their public schools, as has most of the rest of Canada. Yet Ontario continues to maintain the catholic school board as a publicly funded entity. No other religious group is granted this distinct privilege of having their religious schools funded by taxpayer dollars. In fact, in 2007 the opposition Conservative party of Ontario proposed a plan to, if elected, institute a voucher system by which people who send their children to private religious schools would be able to receive tax write-offs, essentially giving all religious schools a partial subsidy. This idea was quite unpopular with the voters and the Conservatives lost an early advantage in the polls to lose the election that year to the Liberals. I actually would have been conditionally in support of this idea were it not for the fact the Catholic schools would continue to be fully funded, thus leaving all religious schools still at a disadvantage. However, if the Catholic board were abolished I would support their schools being able to take advantage of a voucher program, as long as all other religious schools could partake as well.
Why does all this matter? Well, since public schools are funded and run by the government, they must abide by official government curriculum and fully conform with all provincial human rights and non-discrimination policies. As homophobia in the public schools will not (or at least should not) be tolerated, most schools have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) or similar programs, at least if there is a desire for one. If a school principal or local school board tried to block it, the ministry would intervene as that would be against policy. Apparently, the Catholic board does not have to play by the same rules. The Catholic schools are allowed to include religious instruction in the curriculum and it seems they are not required to fully follow provincial guidelines if they are “contrary to religious principles”. Over the past year, there has been a push in the Catholic school boards in Halton region and Toronto to start a GSA, which the catholic board has been consistently blocking. There has been a great deal of overheated rhetoric and some rather disgusting comments, but the real point is that the Catholic board is apparently able to flout provincial law because tolerance of homosexuality is supposedly “contrary to Catholic teaching”. What the boards finally seem to be settling on, only after pressure from the education ministry, is to allow “diversity clubs” or “tolerance” groups - but they can't have “gay” anywhere in the name, and in one case they were not even allowed to use the rainbow symbol. Now, let me think, what is the original symbolism of a rainbow... oh that's right, in the story of Noah's Ark. So the ultimate religious symbol of peace and harmony is too contentious and symbolic of “the gays” and can not have a place in a “religious” school.
Now I am sure that intolerance in the name of religion takes place in other religious schools. The difference is these are private schools - entirely self-funded through student tuition, church or other religious association sponsorship, and private donors. So as long as they are not actively violating the province's human rights code they may teach whatever religious doctrine they please, even if many of us may not agree with it or if it is intolerant. But when a school receives public funding, whatever it does ought to be in the public interest. While you can choose to have your personal tax dollars go toward the public rather than catholic school board, this obviously splits the total available revenues. That means whatever goes to the catholic board is money that could have gone to the public board, so whichever option you select you are still subsidizing both school boards. Despite this public funding, the catholic schools are still permitted to include religious instruction in the curriculum and they are currently insisting that they not be required to teach anything that contravenes their religious principles. If their religious teachings state that being gay is unacceptable, then they can claim that not only do they not have to teach anything about gay issues (if that ever becomes part of the curriculum) but they can refuse to allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. So how does a gay Ontario resident feel, having their tax dollars go (indirectly) to support a school system that will teach kids that you are sinful and ought not to exist? It would serve us well to remember that so much of the most vitriolic homophobia out there today uses the pretext of religion to justify the hatred.
Unfortunately, I don’t really see any prospect of this arrangement changing any time in the near future. There is simply no political will to undo an arrangement that benefits the Catholic Church, which represents a very large number of voters and wields considerable political clout. In the recent election, only the green party was saying anything about disbanding the catholic board, all the parties with any significant vote share are not contemplating any such thing. But if we are serious about equality in education, we cannot continue to support a school system that allows inequality.