As election issues go, few would seem less sexy than the issue of school funding. Yet in the Canadian province of Ontario, where an election will be held Oct. 10, the issue of public funding for religious schools, or "faith-based funding," is the hot topic.
Few would say it out loud, but many worry about what would be taught in some Muslim or Christian schools – anti-Semitism? Creationism?
The debates over how to accommodate Canada's binational origins go back to the British North America Act, which entailed the creation of Canada in 1867. As a nod to the English and French Canada of the day, the decision was made to fund two school boards – Protestant and Catholic – up until what was then the end of "common" schools (usually the eighth grade).
The Protestant board has since morphed into the public system, and the Catholic board, while remaining Catholic, has also changed, sharing much curriculum with the public system. In the 1980s, then-premier of Ontario Bill Davis extended public funding of Ontario's Catholic schools to the end of high school. The policy has since been criticized as "discriminatory" by the UN Human Rights Committee.
Canada is no longer merely Catholic and Protestant, of course. And while some Canadian provinces have chosen to publicly fund, in varying degrees, other religious schools, Ontario – now made up of virtually every religious and ethnic group the world has to offer – remains true to the 1867 dictates. And Ontario's Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals – and other groups – are asking, "What about us?"
They have a champion in Ontario's Conservative Party leader John Tory, who has made government funding faith-based schools part of his platform. But he probably didn't count on it becoming – as it has – the focus of his campaign, and he may well regret it come election day. About 3 in 5 Ontarians oppose the measure, according to an Ipsos Reid poll taken this month.
For Mr. Tory, school funding is a way to distinguish himself from his main opponent, Liberal Party leader and Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty. Apart from school funding, the two men are not far apart politically. Mr. McGuinty, recognizing which way the wind is blowing, has grabbed hold of the issue and pushed it front and center, presenting himself as a defender of Canadian traditions.
The only plus for Tory is that the funding issue may help him in vote-rich Toronto, traditionally a Liberal strong-hold. Canada's most populous city is home to a large number of immigrants, many of whom support extending school funding. And therein lies the unspoken worry. Polite, diversity-loving Ontarians may be loath to admit it, but people are concerned about what would be taught in Muslim schools. Would they be funding madrassahs? Subsidizing Holocaust denial? And what about fundamentalist Christian schools? Would they be supporting the teaching of creationism as science?
Supporters of faith-based funding say that since Ontario's publicly funded schools are required to incorporate much of Ontario's public school curriculum, problems of extremism won't arise. The Ministry of Education will keep an eye on things. But expecting government funding to be the cure-all for problems concerning integration is painfully naive. With faith-based funding, every religion that has a school will have a pressure group behind it. The latter is a highly unpalatable scenario. Imagine how far it might go: Why not Wiccan schools? Rosicrucian schools?
With the inherent inequity in the existing model, the appropriate response would be to remove funding from the Catholic schools and amalgamate the school boards. If funding one faith is wrong, then funding many is wrong multiplied. If people want religious educations for their kids, they can pay for private religious schools. Many secular Ontarians, tired of what they view as a left-leaning, politically correct public school system, already pay out of their own pockets to provide an alternative for their children.
But as the saying goes, good luck with that. One hundred and forty years of history and a guarantee in the Constitution are hard walls to come up against. Not to mention that the Catholic School Board is responsible for 30 percent of Ontario's students. Few politicians would have the spine necessary to even suggest scrapping the current system. Intellectually, it makes no sense to me that in 2007, the government should fund one religion. But for the time being, the lesser of two flawed options is to keep the status quo.
• Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.