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It's Time To Excommunicate Public Catholic Schools

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The kids are back in class and the new year is upon us. In light of the shocking honesty from Catholic school trustees in Edmonton and Toronto just before the break, it's perfect timing to make a resolution to achieve equality (and fiscal responsibility) by finally ending our publicly funded separate school system.

Last month, the Edmonton Catholic School Board caused an uproar over the inclusion of the word "unjust" beside "discrimination" in the second reading of a new transgender policy after a seven-year-old trans girl was initially banned from using the girls' bathroom. (The final deadline for the policy, which requires a third reading, is March 31.)

ECSB Trustee Cindy Olsen actually argued that "just discrimination" was, like, totally cool: "If we had a teacher who was teaching religion and wasn't Catholic in a Catholic school, is that discrimination? Or is that unjust discrimination? Because how can a non-Catholic teacher teach religion?"

"Somehow in three provinces it's still considered kosher that one religious group gets tax-funded schooling but not Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist, Hindus, etc. It's the dictionary definition of privilege."

The answer is, of course, the same way that a Catholic teacher could teach science. (Also, denying a job to someone based on their religious beliefs does sound unjust, especially since this means a huge slice of government employment is now reserved for just one group.)

But that seems like an obfuscation of what their real concern is -- one critic, University of Alberta's Dr. Kristopher Wells, described the language as "cloak and dagger" -- because the bigger issue at hand is the Catholic Church's view on LGBT issues and the fact that their schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are still paid from the public purse.

As another Edmonton Catholic school board trustee, Larry Kowalczyk, made clear in a CBC News interview back in September on transgender students: "My stand is with that of the church. God has not made a mistake in the gender of me, or you, or anyone else."

In case the church's position here wasn't clear enough, Calgary Bishop Fred Henry penned a letter on this topic on January 14, in which he called the anti-discrimination bill "totalitarian" and "anti-Catholic" and stated that "in [God's] plan, men and women should respect and accept their sexual identity."

But that wasn't all. He also said "[gay-straight alliances] and [queer-straight alliances] are highly politicized ideological clubs which seek to cure society of 'homophobia' and 'heterosexism,' and which accept the idea that all forms of consensual sexual expression are legitimate" and that "the government, because we're not willing to kowtow and accept the LGBTQ agenda, is all of a sudden starting to try and play a little bit of hardball with us."

His letter failed to mention that this government is also completely funding Alberta's Catholic school system, despite the church's unequivocal antipathy to LGBTQ students and parents.

Then there's Angela Kennedy, the recently acclaimed chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, who said in the announcement press release that the school board "must stand up for what we believe in."

This was how she responded to a CBC Metro Morning interview question about gay-straight alliance clubs, which Catholic schools are no longer legally allowed to ban.

Matt Galloway: "You have said in past that you have opposed gay-straight alliances. Do you think they belong in Catholic schools?"

Kennedy: "I think that we have supportive programs for students and I think students need to have these supportive clubs."

Galloway: "Does that include a gay-straight alliance?"

Kennedy: "We have different clubs in all of our schools and our secondary school students benefit from them. We have a mental health strategy."

A MENTAL HEALTH STRATEGY?!?

Now, having grown up on the West Coast, where all religious schools are private schools, I cannot fathom why public funding is even still on the table anywhere in Canada.

When the right of a tax-funded separate Catholic school system was put into the constitution back in 1867, it was a way of protecting the religious, cultural and language rights of the minority French (who were predominantly Catholic) from the majority English (who were predominantly Protestant) at a time when all schooling was church-run.

We now live in a multicultural country based on equality and yet somehow in three provinces it's still considered kosher that one religious group gets tax-funded schooling but not Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist, Hindus, etc. It's the dictionary definition of privilege. (Quebec, B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan do offer partial funding for any private school, including religious ones, that meet specific criteria, which is a whole other issue.)

The United Nations Human Rights Committee actually called us out on this a decade ago for failing to "adopt steps to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion in the funding of schools in Ontario."

When Ontario premier Kathleen Wynn ran for reelection in 2014, she was asked in a debate about merging the school boards because "it's one of those ways to be more efficient and to save those tax dollars and make sure those dollars get to our children."

Her response, no doubt influenced by a tight election and a powerful Catholic voting bloc, was to dismiss the issue as a "distraction."

"If we were creating a school system today in Ontario, we'd have a different discussion," she added. "But we're not. We have a school system that exists and it works and that's the school system that we'll support."

But tradition is a terrible reason to maintain a Catholic school system or any outdated legislation. After all, that was the argument against same-sex marriage that would have made it impossible for Wynne to marry her wife.

Not to mention this tradition has been upended repeatedly, beginning back in 1890. Manitoba was the first province to do away with the separate Catholic school system, sparking a national crisis dubbed the Manitoba Schools Question. According to Canada's History magazine, this legislation meant that "not only would Catholic schools no longer receive public funding, but parents choosing a Catholic education for their children would still have to pay taxes to the public system."

(Unfortunately, this did not apply to federally funded, Catholic Church-run residential schools, hence the current anger in Winnipeg over plans for a private Catholic school in Winnipeg's heavily indigenous North End. Activists are arguing -- and Education Minister James Allum agrees that "those concerns are genuine" -- that in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revelations about residential schools, "the Catholic Church has caused us enough damage. It is time for this to stop.")

B.C., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. have never had a separate school system and they function just fine. But it turned out to be just as easy for Quebec and Newfoundland to get constitutional amendments to end their own separate school systems in the late '90s. Quebec simply switched from Catholic and Protestant school systems to French and English ones while Newfoundland created a single system following a provincial referendum.

"Residents of Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan shouldn't be forced to pay for a Catholic school system that doesn't ground education in the fundamental separation of church and state."

The status quo can be changed, and based on the behaviour of the Catholic School boards and trustees, enough is enough. A push for a single public school system came up in 2012 in Ontario, when they fought Bill-13 (the Accepting Schools Act) because of its legal guarantee for students to start gay-straight alliance clubs in Catholic schools.

"It mocks religious freedom and disrespects parental rights," wrote the Catholic Register at the time. "It undermines the authority of elected trustees and school principals by giving veto power to children and teens with respect to some after-school clubs. It awards special status to certain types of bullying rather than uniformly attacking bullying in all its forms."

And then it reared its head again during last year's uproar over the new sex-ed curriculum. Though the Toronto Catholic District School Board ultimately rejected a call to delay implementation, they were asked to do so by now-chair Angela "mental health strategy" Kennedy.

Described by the Toronto Star as an "outspoken" sex-ed critic, she released a statement at the time that "substantial parts of the curriculum contradict Catholic teachings" and "Catholic schools shouldn't be forced to teach a program that doesn't ground the expression of sexuality in love and marriage."

By the same token, residents of Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan shouldn't be forced to pay for a Catholic school system that doesn't ground education in the fundamental separation of church and state.

A Forum research poll from last summer found that 51 per cent of respondents want to move to a one-school system: "We have tracked this issue for several years, and opposition to funding is always at about one half, while support is nearer one third. If it were ever put to a public referendum, Catholic school funding would lose, fair and square."

And how much funding are we talking? In Ontario, for example, it's about $7 billion while in Calgary the Catholic school board gets $470 million to the public school board's $1.1 billion.

This brings us to the money argument. The Toronto Star reported in 2012 that merging Catholic and public systems would save almost $1 billion via "cuts to administration, fewer empty classrooms, savings on busing and what it called 'economies of scale.'"

Currently both the public and Catholic school boards in Toronto are running $16-million deficits, as well as servicing debts, which means we are not making the best fiscal decisions to ensure our children can the education they deserve.

Now, anyone can attend any private, faith-based school they wish, or home-school for that matter, because it's a free country. However, they should pay for it, not have it subsidized by the public. If they choose to take advantage of a school system funded by people of all -- and no -- faiths, then they must accept an equality-rooted and evidence-based education.

It's time to defund and merge the remaining separate Catholic school systems in Canada because it's inequitable, discriminatory and, to update our prime minister's famed catchphrase, because it's 2016.

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