Ontario government faces legal challenge for funding Catholic schools

A Hamilton high school teacher is one of two plaintiffs who submitted a legal application against the Ontario government, arguing its publicly funded Catholic school boards are unconstitutional.

Hamilton teacher says Catholic schools impeded job prospects. Ontario says it will protect separate schools

Adrienne Havercroft, a high school teacher in Hamilton, said Ontario shouldn't fund Catholic school boards. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

A Hamilton high school teacher is one of two plaintiffs who submitted a legal application against the Ontario government, arguing its publicly funded Catholic school boards are unconstitutional.

"My ideal outcome is that we would amalgamate the public and Catholic school boards," said 39-year-old Adrienne Havercroft.

Her lawyers filed the application in the Superior Court of Ontario in January while affidavits and exhibits were filed on Wednesday.

Havercroft, who is Christian, said she blames much of her inability to get a full-time teaching job between 2009 and 2019 on the fact the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) generally only hires Catholic educators.

She said she refused to apply there because she isn't Catholic and doesn't believe it should be publicly funded.

"To me the separation of church and state, it doesn't just protect the integrity of the state ... it protects the integrity of religious institutions as well," said 39-year-old Adrienne Havercroft. "If you want to retain your separate status, you don't get to take public money."

The second plaintiff is James Sutton, from Markham, Ont. 

The notice of application, obtained by CBC Hamilton, states he has two kids who go to public schools far away from home and doesn't want to enrol them into closer Catholic schools "because of his conscience." It also says he identifies as an atheist. 

The Ministry of Education said in an email it is "committed to protecting denominational school rights and minority language education rights and that includes Ontario's publicly funded Catholic and French-language education systems."

Catholic board chair defends current system

Havercroft said her job hunt was a "soul-crushing experience."

She said she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2012 and not having a full-time job affected her ability to pay for her health care.

She got better and worked long-term occasional positions with the public board to fill in for maternity leaves and sick leaves. In 2014, she got a real estate licence in an "act of desperation."

"I definitely wouldn't have done it ... I didn't think I was going to come back to teaching," Havercroft said.

She eventually got a full-time teaching job with the public school board in September 2020.

She acknowledges full-time teaching jobs were hard to come by in that time, but says it would've been easier to find a job if there wasn't a school board that almost exclusively hired Catholics.

Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board chair Pat Daly says amalgamating Catholic and public school boards would cause chaos. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Pat Daly, HWCDSB chair and president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association, said the current system works and amalgamating would be messy.

"Such a move would cause chaos and mass, mass disruption to hundreds of thousands of students, families and staff," he said.

Regarding Havercroft's comments, Daly acknowledged educators need a reference from a pastor when applying to the school board but said sometimes exceptions are made to fill a position that doesn't have as many applicants (like French or technology teachers).

He also said Havercroft's lengthy wait for a teaching job wasn't uncommon because at the time hiring was done on seniority.

Ontario group propping up Charter challenge

Havercroft and Sutton are both members of a group called One Public Education Now (OPEN), which has tried to end the separate school funding and is propping up the legal costs through fundraising.

Reva Landau, a retired lawyer and the founder of OPEN, previously filed a similar motion in 2013, but the court refused to consider it because she wasn't a public school employee or parent of a student and had no direct interest in the case.

She points to how Quebec used to have separate school boards but ended that in the late 1990s.

Landau also said amalgamating the school boards will save money.

Daly disagrees, saying there would only be money saved if fewer students went to school.

"Catholic schools make a significant contribution to the fabric of our society," he said.

"The last thing we want is a monopoly in publicly funded education."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC News