In my last post ("How unelected officials cause sprawl in your neighborhood") I addressed the problems with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), that nineteenth-century legislative relic that has mutated into a mechanism whereby unaccountable central powers dominate local decision-making in Ontario.
I had intended to discuss the Trent River Rapids hydroelectric project with respect to the OMB, but I'm going to wait until next week. Instead I'll deal with yet another 19th century leftover which has become a hot topic this week - our two provincial education systems.
Ontario, like Canada, was legally born in the 19th century, and its various governing systems are often dominated by 19th century attitudes and circumstances which no longer prevail.
The Mining Act, the OMB, our two public education systems, and our system of disproportional representation are vestigial governing structures which have handicapped Ontario as we try to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.
We are finally having a referendum on electoral reform to address the problem of disproportional representation at Queen's Park. I'll be touting the virtues of voting in favour of "MMP", or mixed-member parliament, in future entries.
Long a proponent of electoral reform, the Green Party of Ontario has now been attracting attention for its policy on education reform. A Toronto Star interview with GPO leader Frank de Jong this past weekend focused on his long-standing support for a single, integrated public school system. The GPO's position has become mainstream news as an alternative to PC leader John Tory's expressed support for extending the current Catholic education funding privilege to other religiously-based groups.
"Ontario is becoming a more and more secular province day by day, and we need to modernize our educational system and be fair to everyone," de Jong told the Star. "It's not fair to fund only one religion and so the status quo is untenable and it has to change. Either we go to funding all religions – which of course is a can of worms – or we go like Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland and switch to just funding one school system for each language."
In the 19th century, the French and English colonial governments attempted a merger which would create the entity of Canada. As part of confederation agreements, provinces were obliged to protect education rights for both cultural groups.
At the time, language, ethnic heritage and religion were tightly intertwined with one another, and divided cultural groups from one another much more so than they do in Canada today. Schools were originally operated by churches, and so guaranteeing the rights of le francophonie meant guaranteeing the rights of Catholic churches to run Catholic schools.
The plan didn't last long in Manitoba. As non-French settlers from Ontario and Europe rapidly outnumbered those from Quebec, the government moved to eliminate the Catholic schools, causing a national controversy which eventually led to the election of the Liberal government of Wilfred Laurier.
In Quebec, the Catholic church ran almost all the schools in the province right up until the 1960's. Since that time the organization of public education has continued to evolve, with the complete secularization of the system not yet complete. The right to Catholic and Protestant educational classes within the public schools continues, to the exclusion of other religions, but only via Premier Jean Charest's invocation of the notwithstanding clause - a situation which will not hold indefinitely.
In Newfoundland, most Catholics are not of French background but of Irish. The Catholic churches ran the education system right up until ten years ago, when Premier Brian Tobin, himself a Catholic, successfully promoted a referendum on moving to a single publicly run school system. The referendum passed with 73% support - considerably more than the 52% which supported Newfoundland's joining of confederation in the first place. Interestingly, 37% of Newfoundland residents consider themselves Catholic, suggesting that a sizeable portion of Catholics probably voted in favour of the reform or didn't bother to vote at all.
Ontario's case is very different. Churches have not had a role in public education for a long time. The Catholic school system has served not people of French background only, but also those of Italian, Irish, Dutch, Eastern European and Latin American. Funding policies have varied over the years, with full public funding for the Catholic school boards finally achieved in 1985 as one of Premier Bill Davis's final acts.
Davis, who led Ontario's PC party through its years of political dominance in the 70s and 80s, had earlier been against full funding for Catholic schools. It was widely speculated that the extension of full funding was a political ploy to secure the support of Catholic voters in the upcoming election. Davis, who was set to retire, may have wanted to leave some political momentum to his successor, Frank Miller.
Who was Davis's principal secretary in his last years in office? None other than current PC leader John Tory.
Davis's attempt to bequeath solid electoral standing to Miller did not produce the desired results. Some small-town Protestant voters were alienated, and Miller's team were quickly replaced at Queen's Park by David Peterson's Liberal party - ending 42 successive years of PC governance in Ontario.
Just over one-third of Ontario residents consider themselves Catholic. Roughly the same amount consider themselves Protestants. The third largest group, at 16%. reports "no religion", while other religious groups together make up the remaining 14%.
What were at one time Protestant school boards evolved over the course of the late twentieth century to absorb most of Ontario's new ethnic and religious diversity, finally becoming fully secularized in the last generation. Over this same period, immigration replaced childbirth as the driver of population growth in Ontario.
We have far fewer children in our society today than we did in the 19th century and early 20th, and many more old people. As a result, many schools and school boards in areas of low population density are not able to maintain enough student enrolment to warrant the cost of their facilities. Moves toward the merger of the Public and Catholic board transportation management have already been made across the province, and some schools and school boards have initiated their own mini-mergers in order to make ends meet.
The economic efficiency argument is only one rationale for a single public system. Another is the issue of religious discrimination. Ontario has been cited by the United Nations several times for failing to reform the current discriminatory system.
The issue is likely to become an emotional one through the provincial election campaign. Tory is clearly taking a page out of his former boss's book of tricks. He's obviously hoping that support for funding for a multiplicity of religious schools will draw some of the electoral support of recent non-Christian immigrants to Ontario, which traditionally has gone to the Liberal party. So far, the polls haven't shown much change in support for the PCs, and it may be worth Tory's while to give another review of the downfalls of Sir John A. Macdonald's and Frank Miller's Conservative governments over the issue.
Dalton McGuinty, himself a Catholic, supports the status quo, as does NDP leader Howard Hampton.
In Peterborough the issue is likely to be high profile, as we have large proportions of both Irish Catholics and conservatively-minded Protestants, as well as rapidly-growing support for the Green Party.
That's the history so far. I'll discuss the single public system model and possibilities for the future on Friday.