John Tory, with his early summer announcement that he would extend funding to faith based schools across Ontario, has changed the face of this election. He has clearly drawn a line in the sand on this issue, proclaiming that it is a matter of principle, and the right thing to do.
On the point of it being a principled position, there can be no argument. Dalton McGuinty may believe otherwise, but, the status quo, whereby Ontario funds one religious group to the exclusion of others, is indefensible. Does this mean, though, that we must fund all faith based schools? The Green Party believes that full consideration must be given to the alternative of moving toward a unified public system.
Our current system has its roots in pre-confederation Ontario when a Methodist Minister, Egerton Ryerson, was laying the foundation. There was no consideration at that time of any faith other than Christianity. The only issue was your denomination within that faith. The schism of the day was between Protestant and Catholic.
This is the 21st Century, however, and times clearly have changed. Unfortunately our method of funding education has not.
John Tory, as noted above, would have us solve this by extending funding to all faith based institutions that follow Ministry of Education guidelines and its curriculum. I believe this to be a short sighted path that moves us away from long term sustainability for our education system. Not only financially costly, the ultimate effect is that it moves us toward focusing on what separates us rather than what bring us together.
There are many financial and environmental arguments that can be made against such a proposal. John Tory has already thrown out the figure of investing an extra half a billion dollars to bring this about. This is from someone who professes to be a firm believer in economic efficiency. Environmentally, the profusion of various separate schools would lead to ever more demand for transportation as children go from one side of a city to another to get to their unique school.
However, these immediate costs pale in comparison to the long term social consequences. Ontario’s immigration patterns have changed in the past thirty years. People of a multitude of faiths and ethnic backgrounds have been welcomed. We have had difficulties, but we, and our children, have ultimately learned so much from each other. We are now recognized around the world as an example of how diversity can be celebrated, while simultaneously developing vibrant cohesive communities.
One of my most memorable experiences in this regard was from three summers ago. I had the opportunity to volunteer as a teacher’s assistant in a summer ESL class for teenagers. About twenty students in each class, from at least a dozen different backgrounds. New friendships were being formed amongst the students. I noted in particular two young students who were virtually inseparable in their friendship. One Muslim, the other Jewish, both newly arrived in Canada. And then there was the shy Christian from Jordan helped with his homework by the equally shy Vietnamese Buddhist. It was a memorable summer for all of us. How could this have happened if each newcomer had been directed toward a faith-based education?
In our schools today our children have the opportunity to discover what brings them together while simultaneously appreciating their diversity. I do believe that so many of these opportunities would be lost if we chose the path of further fragmentation of our educational system.
I make the argument then, for a unified school system, not on the basis of the economic and environmental arguments, (although such arguments are valid), but because it simply is the right thing to do to ensure that we continue to develop strong, cohesive, respectful communities.