At the beginning of the 21st century it is timely to consider whether the continuation of Roman Catholic separate school education in Alberta is desirable.
Separate school education was originally available to the minority religious faith — either Protestant or Roman Catholic — in the local community. The Government of Alberta has, de facto, extinguished the right of Protestants to establish separate school education where they may be the minority.
In the past 150 years there has been an ever stronger sense that the State should be neutral in all matters of religion: particularly, that there should be no State Church. Quebec, which imposed separate school education on Alberta (and Saskatchewan) did away with religion as the basis for providing education in the 1990s.
In the past 50 years there has been a growing realization that some Church teachings and practices are contrary to important characteristics of our civil democratic society. In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was incorporated into the Constitution of Canada and of the provinces.
Should Roman Catholic separate school education be continued in Alberta? What arguments might be argued in favour of continuing Roman Catholic separate school education?
Since the provision of separate school education (for either Protestants or Roman Catholics) was part of the original compact with which to govern Canada, perhaps Roman Catholic separate school education needs to be maintained in Alberta as a necessary condition for the continued existence of the country. (That is, perhaps we need to honour the political compact of 250 years ago.) Except that the original compact was not made by the British Government with the Roman Catholic Church: it was a political compact, not a religious one. Quebec (for which it was once essential) has done away with denominational separate school education, Alberta has eliminated Protestantism from the compact (in Alberta only), and there is absolutely no evidence that the Canadian citizenry demand the continuation of separate school education as a continuation of maintaining the nation. (On the contrary, the complete absence of separate school education in P.E.I., N.S. N.B., Manitoba, and B.C., as well as its abolition in Quebec and the abolition of denominational school systems in Newfoundland and Labrador suggests that separate school education would have few supporters nation-wide.)
Perhaps the abolition of Roman Catholic separate school education is constitutionally impossible (or, virtually impossible), and simply not worth the protracted and problematic effort. Except that, in the last 25 years both Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec have abandoned denominational school systems, by amending their respective constitutions in a straight forward fashion that did not entangle other provinces.
Constitutions, including the Constitution of Alberta, are not meant to be amended frequently or casually, but neither are they meant to remain stuck in the 19th century when the community has moved on. There was a day when when women were not considered persons in Alberta, or when Alberta did not own the mineral rights under the ground. Constitutions should change as the community evolves.
Perhaps it is desirable to maintain an official and tangible measure of support for Christianity as the source of much that is good in the country. Except that, the social and cultural conventions that were easy allies of separate school education 150 or 200 years ago have evolved away from the parochial conditions that justified separate school education. (Our commitment to inclusion, respect, human rights is stronger now than it was 150 years ago and one of the reasons for the current strength is that it draws on human convictions that have many roots, not just one.) As well, in Alberta, separate school education does not acknowledge the value (and values) of Christianity as a whole: it only recognizes the value (and values) of one denomination. In Alberta, separate school education is not faith-based: it is Church based.
Perhaps the organization and doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church are uniquely essential to the continued well-being of Alberta, above any other church or faith, and merit public endorsement and support. Except that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are being challenged and/or rejected by citizens and governments, in respect of health issues, education issues, practices of civil democracy, and so on. Except, as well, for the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is increasingly asserting its right to stand against positions of well-being that the community as a whole has adopted.
The current political issue is about the apparent intention of Roman Catholic separate schools to forbid the formation and operation of certain student clubs on the basis that they would be inimical to the doctrinal interests of the Roman Catholic Church.
Perhaps separate school education as we know it is a good thing in and of itself, with an upside that we should perpetuate and expand. Except that a civil democratic society is premised on the idea that inclusivity is the prime orientation. Democrats begin with statements such as: “we are all in this together”, or “it takes an entire village to raise a child”. Roman Catholic separate school education is founded on the premise that children should be taught in a setting that is first and foremost exclusive, and introduced to the idea of inclusivity as a secondary practice. Non-Roman Catholics may not choose to be supporters of a Roman Catholic separate school system. Students who are not Roman Catholic have no right to be enrolled in separate schools: if it happens it is at the complete and sole discretion of the separate school system.
Perhaps separate school education is pragmatically attractive, regardless of its flaws, because it represents competition for the public school system, and competition is always a good thing. Except that competition is not always a good thing. We do not allow the operation of alternative justice systems based on different concepts of equality, respect for persons, human rights, etc. We do not allow unregulated competition that operates contrary to our principles of justice or our laws. Consider again the words of the legal counsel for the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association who wrote (Catholic Dimension, Fall, 2008, page 8): “So let Catholic education be ‘separate’, different, radical and based upon a concept of education fundamentally opposed to that of the public school system.”
Perhaps Roman Catholic separate school education is no longer attractive, but the political cost of ending it (social tension or otherwise) may be more than the government could bear.
This is the myth that maintains separate school education in Alberta. More on this tomorrow.