Faith-based schools

By Jennifer Wilson
CBCNews.ca | Updated Sept. 17, 2007

How provincial governments finance religious schools

When the writ dropped for the 2007 Ontario election, funding faith-based schools — a proposal by Conservative Leader John Tory — suddenly become one of the province's most contested issues.

The reality, though, is that Canada's political leaders have hemmed and hawed over ways to accommodate the country's diverse faiths in the school system since the days of Confederation.

The solution then was to fund two separate school boards, one Catholic and one Protestant — essentially to represent the English and French fact of the day — and the decision was enshrined in the British North America Act of 1867.

However, as Canada became increasingly diverse through successive waves of immigration, provinces devised their own unique methods for handling the place of religion in the education system. Some education ministries have allocated partial funding to faith-based schools, two pay the full tab for some of their religious schools, while others have moved to an entirely secular, public system.

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In the beginning

In the early 19th century, religious and charity groups established the first formal schools in Canada. Mid-century, colonial governments began setting up the first public schools while maintaining religious instruction.

In Upper and Lower Canada (present day Ontario and Quebec), problems arose because the religious minorities in each region, Catholic and Protestant respectively, rejected the religious practices of the majority.

Catholics in what was to become Ontario did not want their children following the Protestant practice of Bible studies in school, while Protestants in Quebec did not want their children learning Roman Catholic dogma. As a result, governments in the two jurisdictions established dual school systems to accommodate both religious denominations and these systems were enshrined in the British North America Act at the time of Confederation in 1867.

Over time, the originally Protestant school boards of English Canada evolved into the secular public system, and the provinces were forced to decide how to handle the remaining religious schools.

Currently, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec provide at least partial funding to independent, mostly religious schools, while New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador do not.

Faith-based school funding at a glance

Partial funding.


Full funding to faith-based and charter public school boards, and 60 per cent funding to private schools delivering provincial curriculum.


Full funding to historical high schools and schools associated with school districts; partial for others.


Fifty per cent of the funding provided public schools for operating costs if they comply
with provincial standards.


Full funding for the Catholic board only.


Partial funding to established religious schools that follow the Quebec curriculum.

New Brunswick:

No funding.

Nova Scotia:

No funding.


No funding.

Newfoundland and Labrador:

No funding.

In the West

When it joined Confederation, British Columbia established a public, secular system. Today, faith-based schools operate as independent schools governed by provincial jurisdiction and receive a portion of their funding from the province.

All of the province's 355 independently operated schools, many of which are faith-based, are regulated and funding is distributed according to five distinct categories. The largest category, with more than 67,000 students, receives 50 per cent of the funding available to their local school district. Another category, with more than 14,000 students, receives 35 per cent of the local per-student level.

The province spent about $211 million to fund independent schools during the 2006-2007 school year, and the Education Department estimates that to incorporate these students into the public school system would cost an additional $275 million.

When Alberta joined in 1905, it developed Catholic and Protestant boards. Some religious schools now exist within the public system and receive full government funding. Other private schools in the province, including religious schools that deliver provincial curriculum, are eligible for up to 60 per cent of public school funding for their operating costs. These schools do not receive capital funding from the province.

Saskatchewan has a similar system in place for 14 faith-based schools in the province that meet provincial criteria. These schools are divided into two categories: historical high schools and associated schools.

The province's six historical high schools, which serve 717 students, were established early in the 20th century by churches and are thus grandfathered into the public system and fully funded.

There are 1,667 students enrolled in the province's eight associated schools, which are faith-based schools affiliated with a school district and which comply with provincial standards. These schools receive funding based on individual negotiations with their school divisions. There are also 28 religious schools in the province serving 640 students that are not directly funded.

The dual school system had a brief run in Manitoba, where it was introduced in 1871 and scrapped for a secular system by 1896.

Independent schools in the province, which can be non-denominational or faith-based, are eligible for public funds at approximately 50 per cent of the amount provided to public schools if they meet government standards for curriculum, teaching and administration. They account for 13,000 students, with most of them (84 per cent) enrolled in religious schools, predominantly Catholic. These independent schools aren't eligible for capital funding but their operating costs amounted to approximately $46.4 million in 2006-2007.

There are also 45 schools in the province that don't follow Manitoba's curriculum or employ certified teachers and aren't eligible for public funding. Almost 96 per cent are faith based. A total of 12,105 students attend independent and non-funded faith-based schools in Manitoba, accounting for about 6.6 per cent of the total public school enrolment of 182,185 students.

Quebec and Atlantic Canada

Quebec replaced its religious boards with English- and French-language ones in 1998. The remaining faith-based schools in the province are classified as private, but can receive provincial funding of 60 per cent of what public schools receive if they comply with provincial guidelines — for example if they follow the provincial curriculum and allow government inspections and student testing.

In the Maritimes, the public schools are secular and the provincial governments provide no funding for faith-based schools. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, education was originally provided through a single system that allowed Roman Catholic children to be grouped for education, effectively providing a split system within the public one.

Newfoundland had one of the most complex denominational systems, with multiple school boards for several Protestant factions. In 1920 the province established a unified education system that worked through five denominational subsystems. In 1997, the province moved to a secular system and stopped funding all faith-based schools. There are four private religious schools in the province, three Catholic and one Baptist, serving 511 students that receive no public funding.

The Ontario situation

Ontario is the only province that fully funds Catholic education while not providing any funding to other faith-based schools, a holdover from Confederation.

Catholic schooling was guaranteed at the elementary level through the British North America act. In 1985, in a controversial decision that looked to have rebounded against his party, retiring Conservative premier Bill Davis extended full funding to Catholic high schools.

Currently in Ontario, 95 per cent of students attend publicly funded schools, with 650,000 of those or roughly 31 per cent attending Catholic schools. Two per cent or approximately 53,000 students attend faith-based private schools, while the remaining three per cent attend other private schools.

Funding the Catholic system only has angered the other faith-based schools in the province and prompted numerous court challenges. The matter was even taken to the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled in 1999 that this was discriminatory.

On Aug. 27, members from the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Armenian communities banded together to form the Public Education Fairness Network, a lobby group calling on the Ontario government to fund all faith-based schools that meet provincial standards.

Their cause was also taken up by Conservative Leader John Tory.

The arguments

"The current situation is unfair and indefensible," said Howard English, spokesman for both the new network and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of greater Toronto.

"When one uses the term public education, we're not talking about a secular system, we're talking about a system that already includes about 650,000 faith-based students who go to Catholic schools," he said. "We're saying that it's unjust to provide funding for one faith-based system that meets provincial standards while keeping other students out.

"These schools believe very strongly that a faith-based system would reflect the diversity of 21st-century Ontario."

The Ontario Public School Boards Association disagrees. The association opposes the extension of funding for any form of private school in Ontario, including faith-based schools.

"We feel that it's very divisive," said Colleen Schenk, OPSBA vice-president and spokeswoman. "If we extended funding to these private schools it could create silos where people focus on their differences."

Schenk said the association believes that public education helps to unite students in multi-cultural provinces like Ontario.

University of Toronto education professor Ben Levin said a change in school administration would do little, if anything, to address issues surrounding religion in schools.

"I don't think issues on religion and language will ever be resolved in Canada, they're deeply contentious issues," he said, adding that it wouldn't improve student performance either.

Levin said Ontarians should be focusing on access to the school system and accomplishments rather than governance, and "the administrative structure does not determine your achievement."

In fact, he said, changing the structure of the education system actually could detract from student performance, because "changing the system is costly in terms of people's time and attention."

Election issue

The issue of funding for faith-based schools dominated the first week of the election campaign.

The Conservative are promising to extend funding to the other faith-based schools would cost roughly $400 million annually. The only requirement for the funding would be that the schools comply with provincial educational regulations, for example by hiring accredited teachers and following provincial curriculum.

"This is a plan that will bring faith-based schools, which currently exist outside of the public system, inside that system instead, subject to clear, reasonable conditions," Tory said.

Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty slammed the Tory plan, saying that extending the funding would be divisive.

"If we're going to bring about more improvement in publicly funded schools, it is regressive to contemplate segregating our children according to their faith," McGuinty said. "I want our kids to continue coming together."

The Liberal party also estimated that fully funding the existing religious schools would cost upwards of $500 million. The party says that at $9,526 per student in public education multiplied by the 53,000 existing private religious school students, the cost will be $504 million without consideration for increased enrolment, repairs, transition costs and inflation.

The Green Party claims on its website that the "only fair solution" to the debate would be to amalgamate the Catholic and public school boards into a single system.

The New Democrats have said only that their education plan focuses on improving the existing school system.

While the parties battle the issue out on the campaign trail, recent polls suggest the population is almost as divided as the politicians.

A Sept. 10 poll conducted by Ipsos Reid for CanWest News Service found that 35 per cent of Ontarians supported the Tory plan to extend funding to all faith-based schools that comply with provincial standards, with 62 per cent opposed. Ipsos Reid found that more than half of Ontarians, 53 per cent, would like to see the public and Catholic systems merged into a single school system.

An Environics poll from Sept. 13, found that 48 per cent of Ontarians support the Tory plan while 44 per cent were opposed. Meanwhile, 47 per cent of Ontarians favour the Green plan to remove the funding of Catholic schools and direct all money to an amalgamated public system.

Ontarians go to the polls Oct. 10.


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