Why are provinces still funding religion-based institutions? The case for and against defunding Catholic schools in Ontario

The Catholic Church's blasé reaction to the discovery of 215 unmarked children's graves at the former site of a residential school in Kamloops earlier this month has prompted many to take a hard look at where Canada's tax dollars go — chiefly, whether the country and its provinces should continue to fund religion-specific schools and hospitals.

On Thursday, June 24, the Cowessess First Nation says it has found 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan that was founded by Roman Catholic missionaries in 1899 and operated until 1996.

The debate continues about public support of Catholic institutions.

In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) declared Ontario’s policy of funding Catholic schools "discriminatory" as it denies full funding to other religious schools. The policy is very much still in place with 37 Catholic school boards in Ontario alone.

The UN suggestion at the time was for Ontario to extend funding to schools of other religious denominations — or end the practice for Catholic schools altogether.

So, why haven't we made the change yet?

Why exactly is there funding?

Catholic schools

Presently, Catholic schools in Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and all three territories are publicly funded.

At the time of Confederation in 1867, the right for Catholic schools to exist and be funded was written into section 93 of Canada's Constitution.

"These institutions have continued to have deep historic roots, healthcare as well," said Mark McGowan, a University of Toronto professor known for his research on the Catholic Church in Canada.

McGowan says we still have Catholic schools because there is a constitutional protection, many Catholics still want them, and they offer a "different," more holistic educational environment.

Teachers who apply to work at these schools must be of the Catholic faith and require a letter from a priest as proof that they have been baptized.

Health-care institutions

Health-care institutions are also protected by the constitution's religious rights which is why they continue to receive public funding.

McGowan says that religious health-care institutions that receive public funding conform to health standards of the province, but tensions arise when governments enact laws the religious institutions might not be enthusiastic about following.

"That is why there has been some difficulty in the past between certain religious hospitals and government policies that hospitals may choose not to favour ... for example, assisted dying," McGowan said.

However, Michelle Cohen, an Ontario family physician, argues that Catholic hospitals follow a guide called the Health Ethics Guide prepared by the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada where treatment is supported by Catholic principles.

For example, the Health Ethics Guide outlines that Catholic health care organizations are not allowed to engage in, what the guide calls "immediate material cooperation," such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and direct sterilization whatsoever, even though these procedures are legal in Canada.

Immediate material cooperation can refer to procedures or outcomes from procedures that might be considered morally wrong according to Catholic principles.

"They are following a separate guide for health care that restricts them, but they are still funded publicly like every other hospital in Canada," Cohen said.

What would it look like to defund Catholic institutions?

To defund would first require an amendment to the Constitution. It would need to be approved by the federal government, the Senate, and at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of Canada's population.

The Centre for Inquiry Canada is an organization that believes no religion should dictate educational policy or medical care available to Canadians.

It said Canada would look much like it does today if Catholic schools and hospitals were defunded.

"The only difference is that health care — such as reproductive services and medical assistance in dying — would not be rationed due to religious taboos, and there would be a single secular school system for all in each official language," said Leslie Rosenblood, Treasurer & Secular Chair of the Centre for Inquiry Canada.

McGowan adds that due to historical reasons and the Constitution, it would be difficult to defund Catholic institutions because it forms the basis of their permanent rights.

"Governments could not do that arbitrarily without risking a constitutional challenge," McGowan said. "If anyone has to hold their rights in abeyance, it would have to be Catholic ratepayers themselves ... That is, they would be surrendering their constitutional rights."

There has been no formal campaign to defund Catholic schools in Ontario since the late 19th century when Ontario Conservative leader William Meredith campaigned against Catholic and French schools during provincial elections where he failed to win Ontarians' votes.

They should all be using the same rules and regulations. There shouldn't be a concept of a religious hospital that is accepting public funding.Michelle Cohen

Would it actually save the province money?

There are mixed arguments for cost savings of having one public system in the province.

McGowan says cost savings would be minimal because the students will still exist and there will continue to be a need for schools, resources and teachers.

However, the Centre for Inquiry Canada argues that Ontario alone spends approximately 10 billion dollars a year on its separate school system, and merging the public and separate systems in Ontario would save $1.6 billion annually.

When it comes to hospitals, it gets trickier.

Since all Canadian hospitals are publicly funded, Cohen says it would probably be more legally and ethically complicated to defund them due to Canada's universal medical care act.

Rather, Cohen advocates for the removal of using a separate health guide that would limit people's access to services even though the hospitals receive funding from the same pool of taxpayer money.

"Sure, if you want to continue to have a Catholic Saint in your name, and have a Catholic history, that's wonderful, but they should all be using the same rules and regulations," Cohen said. "There shouldn't be a concept of a religious hospital that is accepting public funding."

Cohen explained that the situation for Catholic schools is different because people usually make a choice to go there and the schools are open about their teachings and practices. For hospitals, however, patients access care wherever and whenever it is convenient to them. In small towns, limiting access to care and patients' options is less than ideal.

"There's a certain kind of savviness of the health-care system you have to have to be aware," Cohen said. "What kills me about Catholic hospitals is it feels much more hidden." 

What happened in other provinces when they defunded Catholic schools?

Neither Quebec nor Newfoundland faced an opposition from the federal government when changes were made because education is a provincial jurisdiction. When a majority of people wanted the change, the federal government did not challenge them.

Manitoba and British Columbia continue to partially fund Catholic schools, but Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have stopped. Newfoundland also converted to one public, non-religious system after a referendum on the subject in 1997.

Should the government take a stance?

Funding for education has decreased over the course of Ford's mandate. Given the largest deficit of Ontario's history, education is facing over one billion dollars in cuts and plans to build two Catholic schools in Etobicoke may or may not happen.

Considering the deficit and the fact that Ontario could save $1.6 billion annually, Toronto Star's Bob Hepburn reported that now is the chance for politicians to take a chance and platform to end public funding for Ontario Catholic schools that will save taxpayers a lot.

Organizations such as The Centre for Inquiry Canada continue to call on the government to stop religious-based funding for institutions, and encourage Canadians to make their voices heard with their provincial and federal members of parliament.

When it comes to Catholic hospitals, Cohen believes that one specific religion being publicly funded is not fair because the health-care system is supposed to be secular. People should not be limited with access to services.

McGowan does not believe governments will touch on the issue of defunding Catholic institutions given the challenges mentioned, chiefly the strong public support for the institutions in Ontario.