Nfld. & Labrador

'We couldn't afford it': Brian Tobin on ending denominational education, 20 years later

Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Brian Tobin has no reservations in saying that ending the denominational school system was for the greater good of the province.

Former premier says push to end old system was born out of economic realities, not a dislike of religion

Brian Tobin, Newfoundland and Labrador premier from 1996 to 2000, says the 1997 referendum on ending denominational education was for the best of the province economically. (CBC)

More than two decades after holding a referendum on the issue, former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Brian Tobin has no reservations in saying that ending the denominational school system was for the greater good.

Voters decided on Sept. 2, 1997 to create a non-denominational system, ending entirely the right of churches to control education.

The vote came after the first referendum on the issue was challenged by the Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches, which argued the province didn't have the right to integrate their schools.

The Roman Catholic Church was one of several denominations that controlled schools and curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador prior to 1998. (Beth Macdonell/ CBC)

"I'm very proud of what we did and I'm proud of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to embrace the future instead of being chained to the past," Brian Tobin told CBC Radio's On The Go on Tuesday.

"Our capacity today, with our current economic challenges, to run a system like that, it would have been impossible. Our children in Newfoundland and Labrador would have suffered an inferior education."

Results justify means

Tobin said despite the passionate debate that took place at the time, the fact that today nobody seriously questions the move shows that its implementation has been embraced by the people of the province.

The former premier, who grew up in the Roman Catholic system, said it put him in a difficult position at the time to lead the charge against his own church's control over education. He said it was even more of a challenge for then-education minister Roger Grimes, who came from a Pentecostal background.

Premier Brian Tobin kneels before Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Jan. 8, 1998 after accepting the Constitutional Amendment to Newfoundland's Term 17 regarding the elimination of denominational schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. (

Tobin said the push to end the churches' control was not guided by a malice toward religion, but more by economic realities.

"We couldn't afford it," he said."

"We weren't putting our money into providing the best education system for our children. We were putting our money into maintaining buildings — some of which were half empty — and busing people an hour away rather than letting them go to the school in their community because it wasn't a denominational fit."

Impact of sexual assault scandals

When Tobin went to Ottawa in January 1998 to get the federal government's permission to amend the Canadian Constitution's Term 17 to end church control over education in Newfoundland and Labrador, he had to clearly state that churches would have absolutely no rights over education.

He said that may have seemed harsh at the time, especially since there was a sense that churches – especially the Catholic church – had been weakened in the province in the years following various sexual assault scandals and investigations, such as at the former Mount Cashel orphanage in St. John's.

"There's no question that the loss of moral authority arising out of those scandals unquestionably had some impact in the minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians," he said. "Parents in particular."

With files from On The Go