After the dust settles: Catholic Education in Ontario

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Once the election results were in and Kathleen Wynne (Minister of Education before the election) had won her seat again, a reporter asked her whether after the dust settles there will be a need to revisit the issue of funding for Catholic schools.  Her answer was clear regarding the government’s desire to rebuild the current system as it exists. The reporter pressed on… perhaps in the long-term, there will need to be a review, whether to fund Catholic schools? Wynne repeated her commitment to invest in the system as we have it now in the long-term. I am sure that at some level, many of us in the Catholic community were relieved. Yet, I don’t know about you but I can’t help but think that this can’t last… not as it is now. There are elements of the current system which are plainly not in the best interest of Ontario.

During the election coverage on CTV, the Member of Parliament, Olivia Chow, was claiming that the Liberals had won the election because of the John Tory’s commitment to funding religious schools. Her claim was the Liberals hid behind this controversy. It is true that this issue was critical in the election. Despite having some merit and what seemed like the inopportune and not so understated support of the Ontario bishops, the proposal was itself meant to be a distraction.  It was meant to distract us from the legacy of poorly funded schools, both secular and Catholic which we inherited from the days of Mike Harris.  The Liberals correctly responded with what I would describe as “when our school system is still in ‘intensive care’ it is not the time to consider elective surgery”.  However, contrary to the Minister of Education and the Premier, I don’t think John Tory’s idea of funding faith-based schools was either “divisive or destructive”. But his use of it in the election was. It has heightened anti-Catholic sentiment and resentment.

In many ways Tory’s proposal was misrepresented. As far as I understood, he was not calling for the funding of private religious schools but rather their incorporation into the public school board.  That’s actually not such a bad idea.

Another idea that I have heard is that we should have one school system for everyone and parents could enrol their children in religious instruction courses during school hours as it is done in Québec.  In theory you could have children of all faiths in one school learning about their religions.  Wouldn’t that be great? Not really.

Catholic Education is not just about communicating truths or teachings but rather “human formation”.  I grew up in Quebec and I can tell you that the “religion classes” did absolutely nothing for me. They were boring beyond belief! In high school I even wrote a letter in the diocesan paper about the poor quality of our classes and got called into the bishop’s office. (Yes, even back then!)  The more significant aspect of my formation in faith, besides my family, was the work of the teachers, administration and staff in creating a Catholic community.  I credit the “pastoral animators” of the time: Janice Couture, Gail Tisseur and Jack Adams for instilling in us a sense of what it really means to be Catholic; celebration, community, justice and service. It’s partly because of their example and commitment that I am a Franciscan today. You can’t really do that in a 40 minute “religious instruction” class once or twice a week!

What we value about Catholic Education is probably very similar to what others see as the value of Jewish, Muslim or Hindu education. We realize that we shape our children’s future by the environment we provide for them in their early years.  We need to come together and figure out how to provide this for all of our citizens.  If this discussion is going to go anywhere though, we are going to have to tackle the hegemony of secularism which portrays itself as the only truly “pure” form of citizenry. Which some might read as… white, anglo-saxon, lapsed protestants (Waslps)  There is no rarefied version of the true “Ontarian” that hovers above the melange of Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu etc. We are all Ontario! 

The so-called “secular” society is itself the product of our Judeo-Christian tradition. In a great book “Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children” Ron Rolheiser borrows an image from Kathleen Norris in referring to our current secular society as a moody adolescent. 

“When you are sixteen, your family can do nothing right, you are ashamed of it’s faults, and your parents and siblings seem the prime agents blocking your freedom, potential and growth. That, we believe, is an apt image to describe how so many people within secular culture, wanting to be mature and sophisticated, relate to our Judeo-Christian roots and the churches.” 

Our first priority is to rebuild our school system. We also need to continue our discussion about the place of spirituality and faith in society how to best meet the faith formation needs of all of Ontario’s children.

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