Can our schools be denied state aid? You bet
Date: Friday, October 19th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle
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Canadian politics are notoriously boring, so it is hardly surprising that an election in Ontario last week received just one paragraph in one British national paper (The Guardian).
But anyone who cares about Jewish education in this country had better brush up on the details, fast.
The election, in Canada’s most populous province — home to Toronto and 200,000 of the country’s 385,000 Jews — hinged on one issue: funding for faith schools. This was the first time the question was made central to a political campaign in a major Western country, and many of the arguments echoed those heard here. Although there are significant differences between Ontario and the UK, the way the campaign played out, and the frightening outcome, are instructive for Anglo-Jews.
In Ontario, due to a constitutional quirk, the government funds only non-denominational and Catholic schools. Despite a UN Human Rights Committee ruling that this is discriminatory to other religions, successive governments have declined to change the system. Of Ontario’s two million public-school students, 650,000 attend Catholic schools. Another 53,000 attend faith-based private schools, including 11,500 in Jewish ones. Average fees in Jewish schools in Toronto are equivalent to £5,500 a year in primary schools and £8,600 in high schools.
Last spring, a Canadian Jewish Congress poll showed that Ontarians were only narrowly against allowing schools of other religions to benefit from state aid as well. They shared the results with both major parties. The opposition, the Progressive Conservatives, agreed the issue was one of fairness, and put public funding for all faith schools on its election platform.
Big mistake. The incumbent, Liberal Party leader Dalton McGuinty, who was seen as vulnerable before the election, made it the central issue in his campaign. Although he sent his children to Catholic schools, he relentlessly hammered home the message that faith schools were “socially divisive”. “I don’t think it’s right to divide our kids. We should bring them together.” Why is Ontario, he asked, different to “London, Germany, Paris, the Netherlands? Why is there not more strife, struggle and controversy? It’s because we bring our kids together in the same classrooms.”
Last week, he won 71 of the province’s 107 seats, to the Conservatives’ 26 (up just one from the last election). Parents of children in Jewish schools have seen the chance of their tuition burden being relieved disappear forever.
Here in the UK, our schools receive state aid, but can that be stopped, curtailed or made subject to restrictions? Ontario shows that, even if the suggestion to force faith schools to admit some children from other religions was successfully rebuffed, we must not be complacent.
A major political party in a Western democracy has run and won an election on the issue of denying money to faith schools. Ontario is even more militantly “multicultural” than the UK, with more than half of Toronto’s 2.5 million residents born outside Canada. Respect for other cultures is a cornerstone of Canadian identity.
If it can happen there, it can happen here.
Canadian papers noted that the real issue was public unwillingness to fund Muslim schools. Muslims in Canada are far better integrated than those in the UK; McGuinty is right, there is less “strife”. But denominational schooling proved to be a red line, and the Jews were incidental casualties. The Conservatives assumed that multicultural-
obsessed Ontarians would agree that to deny minority faiths the rights extended to Catholic schools would constitute that most un-Canadian practice, discrimination. But when the choice came down to funding Muslim schools or discrimination, they chose discrimination.
If it happened there, it can happen here.
Lastly, this vicious campaign, which portrayed religious minorities as “segregationists” who threaten the fabric of society — and which some consider to have bordered on racism — was conducted by a left-wing, supposedly liberal party, not a right-wing one.
And if it can happen there, it can happen here.
Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC