Community closely monitoring elections in Ontario, where 100% funding of religious schools is proposed
DAVID JOHNSTON, the Gazette
Published: Saturday, September 29
It’s been a long time since a provincial election campaign, other than a Quebec one with national-unity overtones, has resonated as strongly on the national stage as the current contest in Ontario, where voters go to the polls Oct. 10.
Quebecers who have been paying attention have had a distinct sense of déjà vu, watching the generally negative public reaction to the opposition Progressive Conservative Party’s pledge to provide full public funding to faith-based schools.
Almost three years ago, the Charest government’s proposal to extend full public funding to private Jewish schools created a storm of controversy. It turned out to be the first of a series of multiculturalism-policy road bumps that led to Quebec creating the current commission of inquiry into reasonable accommodation of minorities.
After considerable public opposition to the idea of 100-per-cent taxpayer funding of Jewish private schools, the Charest government backed off in January 2005. But it all turned out to be a nightmare for Montreal’s Greek community, which had been receiving full public funding since 1978 under a special francization deal.
Under the deal, the Greek schools agreed to bolster instruction given in French. But after it emerged that most Greek children go on to attend English CEGEP anyway – a pattern the government saw as evidence of the special deal’s failure to prevent anglicization – the education minister at the time, Pierre Reid, said the government would have to revisit the Greek question. And that it has, quietly, during the past two years, while also reviewing the broader question of state support for faith-based or ethnic-based schools. As a result of that internal review, completed early this year, Greek schools have been told their 100-per-cent funding entitlements will end next June.
"From now on, there will be no differences from one (private school) to another," as far as public funding is concerned, said Jean-Pascal Bernier, an aide to Education Minister Michelle Courchesne.
Private schools that receive public funding will be subject to the same cap of 60 per cent of the cost of a public education. Parents will have to make up the other 40 per cent. In return for money, these schools have to obey certain rules, such as Bill 101, which restricts English education to children of parents educated in English in Canada. Private schools that operate at greater arm’s length from government don’t receive any public funding.
Now, the five Greek schools in greater Montreal that had been operating under the 1978 agreement are trying to persuade the government to consider alternative solutions. "There are talks going on," said Jean-Pierre Archambault, an official of the Commission scolaire de Laval, which is linked to two of the five Greek schools. Two are on Montreal Island and one is on the South Shore.
Greek-community leaders have been reluctant to discuss the negotiations publicly, but one source, not speaking for attribution, said there is hope that a Tory victory in Ontario on Oct. 10 will make Quebec reconsider the whole question. "We’re really hoping for some good news," the source said. But the news hasn’t been good in Ontario, from the Montreal-area Greek community’s perspective.
The PC proposal in Ontario to extend full funding to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other faith-based schools – as Catholic schools are entitled to under constitutional guarantees – has failed to win broad support from the mainstream Ontario electorate, according to Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political science professor.
Instead, the proposal has hardened attitudes in Ontario on both sides of the question, as different notions of equality rights have clashed. In Alberta, faith-based and ethnic schools, like the Greek schools in Montreal, are funded entirely publicly. In Edmonton, there are Arabic, Mandarin, Hebrew, Spanish, German and Ukrainian schools, as well as French schools. Gloria Chalmers, the Edmonton School Board’s director of programming, said this has not been a sore point with the public.
By bringing faith-based and ethnic schools into the public system, it is easier to prevent the rise of extremist or supremacist ideologies, according to some observers. The Tories have tried to point that out in Ontario, but not many voters are buying that argument.
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