Updated: Aug 14, 2022
No political issue in Canadian history has been more important, contentious, and complex than schooling, and particularly the question of government support for different kinds of schools.
The Constitution itself provides for different kinds of schools. Roman Catholic schools were to receive state aid alongside public (which, in 1867, would have meant “Protestant”) schools. Since then, we have wrestled with this commitment to minority schooling, as controversy has arisen from Newfoundland to British Columbia over how much support should be given to various kinds of religious schools. And at least one recent provincial election in Ontario was largely decided on such matters.
The history of the residential schools is that of a different approach: one type of education for everyone. In this program, European languages, stories, principles, and values were provided to, and imposed upon, minority children of widely varying indigenous cultures to the declared end of assimilating these children to majority ways.
A similar approach to education shows up as an important chapter even within Canadian church history. As two very different accounts of the United Church of Canada demonstrate (Kevin Flatt’s After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada, and Phyllis Airhart’s A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada), the New Curriculum for Sunday schools of the 1960s was intended to get everyone to read the Bible the same way in order to come to the same conclusions. Instead, more than any other single factor in that fractious era, the New Curriculum both demonstrated and exacerbated divisions in our largest Protestant communion.
Which brings us to Trinity Western University’s Law School project and the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada.
But before we take up that issue, let’s go back to Confederation and the country’s Constitution for a moment. Let’s recall that the Protestants and Catholics who negotiated that union made provision for each other’s schools at a time when Protestants and Catholics generally were agreed that the other side’s doctrines were not only wrong, but dangerous. Indeed, the theology taught by the other side was not just dangerous, but infinitely dangerous, as it put in peril the immortal souls of innocent children. Teach them the wrong thing and, alas, they would go to hell.
That’s serious disagreement.
Let’s note, furthermore, that this accommodation of each other’s schools wasn’t just a Quebec (Catholic) versus the Rest of Canada (Protestant) arrangement. The Constitution made provision for minority schools in each other’s majority areas: Protestant schools in Quebec, Catholic schools elsewhere.
Which really does bring us to the Trinity Western decision. For here is a clear-cut case of a religious minority wanting state sanction to educate those who freely attend their school according to their fundamental doctrines and practices, which include (as most religions do) particular rules about sex.
Until relatively recently, most Canadians would have agreed with Trinity Western’s restriction of sexual intercourse to heterosexual marriage. Now, most don’t, while a sizeable minority (of various religious and philosophical viewpoints) continue to do so.
So what about government sanction and support for minority schools nowadays?
There are other ways of looking at this decision, of course, some of them valid and important. I am are a product of Ontario public schools and raised three sons in public schools in Manitoba and British Columbia. I am a declared supporter of mainstream education.
But if we Canadians are going to honour our Confederation heritage of accommodating each other’s views, and accommodating minority values, then we cannot expect to affirm everything our neighbours believe, say, or do. If we’re serious, we have to be willing to accommodate at least something non-trivial. We have to be willing to put up with something that annoys us, alarms us, or even disgusts us.
We do not have to put up with anything and everything, of course. We can and should decide as a majority that some types of behaviour are intolerable and we will forbid them accordingly. But if we refuse to allow anysignificant differences at all in the hot zones of education, individual and community rights, sex, and religion, then what does liberty mean in Canada anymore?
Let’s put it another way. If heteronormative Canadian Christians were wrong to criminalize homosexual behaviour and in many other ways discriminate against this minority, why would it now be right to discriminate against the heteronormative minority (if minority they be)?
“Because they’re wrong!” comes the ready answer. But, of course, that’s what the former Canadian Christian majority thought about their views, too. That’s what we all think about our views on matters that matter to us.
So perhaps the Supreme Court is right. Perhaps not. But the major issue at the heart of this case certainly has not been resolved once for all, as has been made painfully clear by the federal government’s recent insistence on ideological conformity to qualify for summer jobs funding.
As immigration from the four corners of the earth continues apace in Canada—accelerated, in fact, by our big-hearted Prime Minister—we have to keep asking this crucial question: How willing are we to let each other be importantly different?