It is wrong to prefer one group over another

As we have written before, the federal government has given Ontario some $763 million through the Safe Return to Class Fund. The amount of the funds was calculated on the number of all children between the ages of 4-18 attending school in Ontario. The refusal by the Government of Ontario to distribute any portion of these federally sourced Covid protection funds for the safety of children attending independent continues to disappoint and hurt. It is, simply, unfair and wrong.

Set aside for the moment the undeniable fact that all of the approximately 125,000 children in independent schools are being disadvantaged. The effect of the government’s policy against children attending denominationally based independent schools is clearly discriminatory as well as unfair and wrong.

It is true that ever since the Adler case was decided in 1996 by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Government of Ontario can legally say that Canada’s Constitution and specifically the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not compel it to provide any funding to the independent denominational schools. But it is equally true that the Constitution does not prohibit Ontario from providing funds to these schools.

One would imagine, if not also hope, that an extraordinary once-in-a-century circumstance of life-threatening pandemic might move the conscience of the Minister of Education to seek to protect the health and safety of all Ontario’s school children, including children learning in independent schools. But alas, such is not the case, even though the funds he would spend on trying to ensure Covid-safe classes come from federal – not the provincial – treasury.

We repeat and we emphasize in unambiguous terms that this stubborn differentiation practised by the government of Ontario harms all children attending independent schools. But we also point out the additional discriminatory affront against children in independent denominational schools.

Again, we note that Canada’s Constitution does not require Ontario not to discriminate. But nor does it prevent Ontario from not discriminating. Even the Supreme Court seems to hinting that the law should more closely conform with conscience. It may be time to articulate a constitutional protection for the right to equal treatment in education of a religious minority. For how else, but through the education of the community, can an individual fully express his or her religious freedoms?

In a case in 2015 in which the Loyola High School sued the Government of Quebec involving curriculum – not funding – issues, decided in 2015, Madame Justice Abella of the Supreme Court offered this powerful statement about the group aspect of religious freedom.

“The context in this case is state regulation of religious schools. This raises the question of how to balance robust protection for the values underlying religious freedom with the values of a secular state. The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences. A vibrant, multicultural democracy depends on the capacity of its citizens to engage in thoughtful and inclusive forms of deliberation. But a secular state does not — and cannot — interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over another. The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.” (Our emphasis)

To be sure, no one is accusing the Government of Ontario of not respecting religious differences or of trying to extinguish religious differences. But it is also indisputable that by withholding federal funds for Covid safety protections for all Ontario’s school children, the provincial government is effectively preferring to boost the Covid safety of the publicly funded schools and the children learning there, including of course, the Catholic schools and Catholic children, to the Covid safety of the many denominationally different children attending Ontario’s independent schools.

This is just not right in Ontario society in the year 2021.

•••

Be safe. Be well. Shabbat shalom. 

GAJE, March 19, 2021

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