a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Vol. 35 No. 2
Public Funding for Religious Education and the Myth of
Multiculturalism in Ontario
For many Canadians the term multiculturalism signifies the shared national sentiment of tolerance, liberality, and generosity that is directed towards people of different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. This idea of multiculturalism claims a place of prominence within both the collective Canadian imagination, and Canadian public discourse. Whether it is the various multicultural festivals that dot the Canadian landscape, televised citizenship ceremonies, or the types of language commonly used by public officials and members of the media, one does not have to look very far to find evidence of the nearly sacrosanct position that the term multiculturalism has assumed in the Canadian ethos. The belief that Canadians are somehow exceptional in the way that they treat people of different backgrounds, whether on an interpersonal or on a public policy level, is a source of pride that serves to distinguish Canada from other nations, particularly the United States, in the minds of Canadians.
However, is multiculturalism actually a demonstrable reality that transcends the Canadian imagination, manifesting itself in Canadian public institutions? Or is it simply a figment of the collective Canadian imagination, an attractive myth of a shared national identity that serves as a cohesive ideology for Canadians without any real implications? These two questions are being asked and answered across the country with varying results. Whether it be kirpans in schools, turbans in the RCMP, Muslim requests for modesty in public spaces, or the insistence of Chinese and Aboriginal healers that their methods be recognized as legitimate, the Canadian judicial process is slowly articulating both the obligations and the limits of a federal policy of multiculturalism that is more than just an incorporeal ideal that provides a false sense of Canadian identity.
One of the places where the applicability of the federal policy of multiculturalism is increasingly being questioned, is the public educational system in the province of Ontario. Section 93 of the British North America Act (1867) guarantees the provision of a separate Roman Catholic school system in the province of Ontario, and unless the Canadian government was to open up the Constitution for revision, this guarantee will remain indefinitely. Because of the government of Ontario’s unwillingness to extend the privilege of publicly funded religious education to other religious groups, these same groups have charged the government with accusations of discrimination according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), and also with failing to recognize the rights of minorities to express their ethnic, cultural, and religious particularities guaranteed in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).
The debate of whether or not it is the legal right of minority groups to receive funding for their own religious schools is an issue for legal experts, and is not one that I intend to explore. However, the question I am interested in examining is whether or not the province of Ontario’s public educational system is adequately implementing the federal policy of multiculturalism. Does the province’s exclusive support of a separate Roman Catholic school system, and a public school system that is devoid of any serious consideration of the particular ethnicities, cultures, and religions of Ontarians, reflect a truly multicultural institution? And if not, what can policy makers do in order to bridge the current gap between the public educational system and the federal policy of multiculturalism?
It is my contention that by exclusively funding a separate Roman Catholic school system, removing religious education from the public school system, and denying other religious groups state funding for their own religious schools, the province of Ontario’s public educational system is not currently implementing the federal policy of multiculturalism. Rather, Ontario’s public educational system is an example of a Canadian institution that perpetuates the myth, as opposed to the reality, of multiculturalism. I contend that this seriously threatens to prevent Canada from achieving the full social and cultural potential that the diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and religions have to offer the whole of Canadian society.
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