Preventing Discrimination Versus Encouraging Multiculturalism
Ontario is Canada’s most populous province and a beacon for newly arriving immigrants. In fact, well over half of new immigrants arriving in Canada settle in Ontario. On October 10, residents of the province will head to the polls to elect a new government. As the campaign picks up momentum, it is becoming clear that this fall’s vote will have major implications for multiculturalism in Canada.
The driving issue that is catching voters’ attention in Ontario is public funding for religious schools. As it stands now, Ontario residents have the option to send their children to public non-denominational schools or to public Catholic schools. The leader of the opposition Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, John Tory, has suggested that out of fairness, public funding should be extended to other faith-based schools, while the incumbent Premier Dalton McGuinty is in favour of keeping the status quo.
The issue of funding for faith-based schools is a contentious one. The public funding of Catholic schools goes back to Canada’s first Constitution, the British North America Act. As part of these negotiations that helped Canada come together as a country, control over education was assigned to the provinces with the proviso that the denominational schools of Canada’s founding protestant and Catholic communities were given constitutional protection.
On the surface, Tory’s position seems to be a pretty straightforward case. To fund one religion’s schools and not another’s qualifies as discrimination. In addition to religious lines, the result is that wealthier families can send their children to private faith-based schools while less fortunate families don’t have that option. Certainly this is not fair.
Premier McGuinty argues that extending funding of faith-based schools is a step in the wrong direction. Funding faith-based schools means less students and less funding for the general public system. More than that however, it means that children do not experience the benefit of being exposed to other faiths during their formative years. The same Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects against religious discrimination also calls in section 27 to be “interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians”.
After 140 years of growth and immigration, Ontario looks very different than it did at the time of the British North America Act. Modern Canada is much more diverse than just Protestant and Catholic communities. Supporting this diversity is better served by sending our children to public non-denominational schools together, rather than segregating them by faith. This leaves us with a dilemma. Publicly funded Catholic schools have a constitutional protection that is unlikely to change given Canada’s complex amendment process. Given that reality, this election issue is a choice between two conflicting aspects of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms-preventing discrimination versus encouraging multiculturalism.
Canadians value multiculturalism. If children are not exposed to the various cultures that surround them, then they cannot benefit from them. As it stands now, the public school system in Ontario offers people a non-denominational education that serves all communities. Yes, it is unfair to fund Catholic schools and not others, but respecting this historical compromise does not mean that we should move away from multicultural public schools to even the playing field. A move made in the name of fairness would be a mistake for multiculturalism.