This feature was produced by Asher Greenberg, a student in Ryerson University's School of Journalism, in partnership with The Huffington Post Canada.
I’ve been in the building less than five minutes and I’ve already committed a cultural faux pas.
My hand extended in greeting, Zainab Hasan apologetically refuses to take it. I should have known better. I’m familiar with modesty laws from elements of my own tradition.
Canadians navigate delicate cultural differences like this each day thanks to an open, multicultural society and the freedom of religion rights enshrined in our Charter.
What the Charter doesn’t guarantee is the right to religious education, unless you’re Protestant or Roman Catholic, two groups with unique constitutional status in Canada.
Parents who seek a minority religious school experience for their children must spend big money -- as much as $10,000 a year or more -- on private institutions. Elementary school costs can rival, and often exceed, the annual undergraduate tuition at Canada’s biggest universities.
Enrollment in private schools -- both academic and religious -- doubled between 1960 and 1975 and more than doubled again by the turn of the century, according to a 2007 Fraser Institute study.
While there are no comprehensive statistics on tuition rates in Canada’s private school markets, parents say they are struggling to cope.
I sought out three Ontario families -- one each from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions -- to find out why they choose religious education for their children, despite the financial burden.
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THE HASAN FAMILY
My awkward meeting with Hasan was at As-Sadiq Islamic School. The Shia elementary school is part of a sprawling complex that includes a mosque and a community centre. It can be hard to spot from the road, but it’s actually located in the heart of the primarily Jewish area of Thornhill, just outside Toronto’s city limits.
At As-Sadiq, the boys are separated from girls during gym class. Females wear loose clothes and the uniform includes white headscarves. It costs $5,000 per year per student, which is expensive, but significantly less than most Jewish and Christian equivalents. And it may simply reflect that Muslim communities in Canada are more likely to be made up of immigrants with fewer resources. Still, $5,000 is 17 per cent more than tuition was in 2006.
Cradling her boisterous eight-month old, Hasan and her friend Shelyna Khalfan sat down with me in a small office beside the gym.
“Tuition-wise, it’s okay. I know people call us a private school but we call ourselves a community school. We do try and help out people who can’t afford,” Hasan says.
It’s important for her children to have pride in both their Islamic and Canadian heritage, Hasan says, “for them to be good Muslims, but also good Canadian Muslims. So if you ever come in the morning, they’ll recite a prayer in Arabic but they’ll also do O Canada.”
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THE TOBIS FAMILY
Two-and-a-half-year-old Josh Tobis will be starting kindergarten soon. But not in the local public school. Faced with a plethora of private Jewish schools options, his parents are leaning towards Etz Chaim, which could set them back $4,000 a year, just for kindergarten.
For Josh’s parents, Eddie and his wife, Ita, the private school choice is not about specific teachers, special programs, the politics of the school board or kosher food.
In fact, Ita says, the government is “wonderful” about accommodating religious children in public schools, “making sure the kids don’t have homework and tests on religious holidays and the Sabbath.” However, a private Jewish school ensures Josh “won’t feel different. He’ll be like everyone else.”
In most private Jewish schools, the day is split into components: part of the time is spent on Jewish heritage and values, part of the time on “what any other kid will learn in school,” Eddie says. On a Friday morning, for instance, the kids may have 'a Sabbath party' while at the same time they learn colouring, reading and writing,” he says.
Still, cost is a growing concern. Tuition at Ontario Jewish schools has risen at more than double the rate of inflation since 2007, according to numbers provided by the Centre for Jewish Education.
Eddie and Ita feel the best solution would involve the provincial government funding a portion of the tuition that relates to general studies, subjects like math, science, and English. “That’s a fundamental right of society, that everyone is entitled to learn math and English. The portion of the schools that relates to religious studies … that’s our private choice,” Eddie says.
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Public funding of religious education is a thorny subject in Canada, especially in Ontario, which saw a recent election turn on the issue.
In the mid-to-late 1800s, Ontario had a Protestant majority and a Catholic minority. The “public” school system was in effect Protestant, while a Catholic system was created to protect what was then considered a vulnerable minority.
When Canada became a country in 1867, the compromise was enshrined in the Constitution, which guaranteed that Catholics would not be forced into the Protestant public system.
But over the years, the Protestant schools system gradually morphed into the secular public system familiar to us today. The Catholic system, though underfunded for much of that time, remained in place.
Today, there are many more minorities and private school options. Groups like the Ontario Multifaith Coalition argue that it is only fair to fund all faith-based schools. But the issue is the “third rail” of Ontario politics and it has damaged the profile of more than one politician who tried to change the status quo.
Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory announced in 2007 during the provincial election “a plan that will bring faith-based schools, which currently exist outside of the public system, inside that system instead, subject to clear, reasonable conditions.” The $400-million plan would have affected the roughly 53,000 Ontario students of diverse faiths who attend private religious schools. “They deserve the same support as students in the province’s publicly funded Catholic schools,” Tory said.
The idea did not go over smoothly. Ontario Premier Dalton McGunity accused Tory of wanting to “segregate children in classes according to their faith at home.” The issue dominated the media, turned public opinion and contributed to Tory’s eventual defeat.
Today, the debate over funding religious schooling has cooled, though it flares up occasionally, as it did at the end of May over the issue of gay-straight student alliances.
Many Ontario private religious schools encourage parents to use a tax workaround. The provincial government allows parents of children enrolled in religious schools to write off part of their tuition fees as a charitable donation. Depending on the family circumstances, such as number of children and tax bracket, parents can write off anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Examples of how this works can be found here and here.
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THE MOORE FAMILY
Crystal Moore and her family live in a quiet suburban corner of Peterborough, across from a park. Within a five-minute drive are the church where Crystal preaches, the locks where her children skate, and the private Christian school where they go to school.
As a teenager, church was “something I did on Sunday,” Moore said. “It wasn’t a component of my everyday life. I did not have a personal relationship with Jesus.”
But at 17, following the death of her father, she decided to change her life.
“Committing my life to Christ and choosing to put him first was urgent and easy to do all at the same time,” she said of her decision to become a pastor.
Moore and her husband wanted to raise their children in a Christian environment both at home and at school.
With four girls aged two to 10, their house is lively and warm. Hope and Hannah, the youngest, dart in and out of the room to play on their mother’s iPhone, sit on their father’s lap or demand a snack.
Moore sends her children to Rhema Christian School. There are 130 students from kindergarten to grade eight. She is keen to stress that Rhema is accredited and follows the Ontario curriculum. But “all of their teachers are Christian,” she said, and they pray with their students in the morning.
The children have “freedom to discuss their faith, to pray in class. [The teachers’] own personal walk with the Lord is evident, even in how they conduct themselves with the kids,” Moore says. In science, for example, it’s not just about atoms or molecules, but that “there is a creator behind all of that,” she says.
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Before leaving As-Sadiq, I meet with the principal, Anthony Scopa, an Italian with decades of experience in the Catholic school system. He is candid and passionate.
He says faith is incorporated in some unexpected ways.
“Parents seem to think that if [the school] is religious based, the discipline is better, because we stress the religion,” he said. “Because we refer to the Lord, to Allah.”
When he confronted a boy he knew was lying to him, Scopa says he framed it in Islamic terms, “What does Allah say about lying?” he asked. “Then you take him to look at the scripture.”
Apparently, it works on the parents too. For inculcating “discipline, work habits, coming on time -- because they choose to come to this school for the values. In a Catholic school, I say the same thing… Here we can use faith against them, in a positive way.”
“Faith can’t just be taught as a forty-minute subject. It has to be incorporated in everything we do.”
For families like Hasan, Tobis and Moore, that all-encompassing approach to faith and education is priceless.