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Twenty Years Later: A Reflection on the NL Schools Act

 

Fagan BonaventureIt was 20 years ago this past fall when the Newfoundland/Labrador government passed the Schools Act (1998) that saw the end to the denominational system of education, an article in the 1949 Terms of Union with Canada, in favor of a public system of education. To reflect on the 20th anniversary and what it means for Catholic education in NL as well as for the rest of the country, we chatted with Bonaventure Fagan.

Fagan, who was part of the negotiation team on behalf of Catholic schools in the 1990s, also wrote a book about the entire experience. He’s well versed in the province’s history pertaining to that change in the education system.

So, we reached out to him to reflect on the current school state and what other provinces are doing to ensure Catholic education remains a key element of Canadian society.

 

 

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CCSTA: It's been 20 years since the government made this decision. How, after 2 decades, has this affected the societal make up of your province?

BON: Any reflection on the demise some twenty years ago of publicly-funded Catholic education in NL

is painful. Those who represented the system in negotiations were first and foremost “believers” - we were not there because of any narrow political agenda, any notion of social division, any determination to simply save positions in schools or administration, or to retain a particular number of school board jurisdictions. We were there because we believed that Catholic education was a positive contribution to the social fabric of the province, even as it was a rich environment in which to educate not only the children of those who had a commitment to the Catholic Faith but each and every child who attended a Catholic school. We were there to defend the principles of a system that had deep historic and social roots in the province. So, the loss of the system was personally and socially painful - it is likely to remain so - that is, the loss of the Catholic ethos in those schools leaves a void not only in the persons directly involved - represented in the triad of ‘home, school, parish’ - but in NL society itself. That said, the remarks that follow are not intended, except in a cursory manner, to revisit the process by which Catholic schools were removed from the education system of the province.

Today, the general education system of NL is public in nature - that is, schools are established and operated by the government throughout the province. Government, using the structure of a single English school board and a single French school board, makes all decisions on where schools will be established, who will construct such schools, who will attend such schools, who will administer and teach in such schools, who will provide transportation to and from schools, what will be taught in schools, and what education standards are to be sought.

Ironically, these same powers were largely held by government prior to the dissolution of the old system twenty years ago with the exception that school boards which represented parents who had constitutional rights in education had varying degrees of influence over certain aspects of the system - in fact, the system was symbiotic in nature with boards and government working together to have children avail of the best possible education. That there were at times not a 100% agreement on all things educational was no more than the normal give and take of such a relationship. As long as the relationship was one of mutual respect, the system could strive to achieve what were the best goals for students and thus for NL society. It was eminently clear during the administrations of Premiers Clyde Wells and Brian Tobin that any such respect by the government was no longer there and hence they pursued and achieved through various means an end to the system of Catholic (and other denominational) schools. The teachers union which represented all teachers in the province was vociferous in its demand to end the denominational system and while a few Catholic teachers found their voice to publicly oppose that position, the silent protestors - no one knows their numbers - were ignored.

As to the quality of education, children receive today in the public schools of this province, I am in no position to provide any direct assessment. The strengths of, and challenges to public education are ever under scrutiny by the scholarly and others throughout this country and beyond. As a citizen and a retired educator, I wish the public schools every success in their endeavour to provide the best possible quality of education to the children of this province. 

CCSTA: Where does this leave room in the province for schools that aren’t publicly funded?

BON: The NL government’s Schools Act does provide for the establishment and operation of ‘private schools’. Such schools, however, do not receive any public funds for establishment or operation, that is, no Capital, no Operating. The government requires such a school to have a Board of Trustees/Governors who operate the school as a business. Such schools must follow the provincial curriculum, have their students participate in provincial standardization tests, and meet the provincial requirements for graduation. At present, there are two Roman Catholic schools in the province, one in St. John’s, and one in Corner Brook. (Two other small independent schools exist in the province.)

Given the reality of establishing and operating an independent school without any financial support by government, it is obvious that fund-raising through tuition and other means requires a constant effort by the Catholic boards. As well, since it is an accepted principle of Catholic schools that provision be made to accommodate students from families who are unable to meet the usual financial obligations of tuition, much effort is expended to raise bursary funds.

As a matter of contrast, when the publically funded system ended twenty years ago there were 160 Catholic schools in the province. Even given the inevitable shrinkage in those numbers through student population decline and consolidation, the reality is that the vast majority of Catholic students in this province can no longer avail of a Catholic education. The two current Catholic schools accommodate approximately 600 students in total.

CCSTA: Are there lessons to be learned from the NL experience by the Catholic systems in other provinces?

BON: Here one must step cautiously. Since education in Canada is a provincial matter, it can be argued (and has been) that what obtains in one province has no impact in other jurisdictions. As far as it goes, that is fact. Yet the education scene in Canada today is not static - communication is instantly attainable throughout the nation; administrators and teachers and others move from province to province bringing with them ideas that challenge the local scene; governments are susceptible to cost-saving arguments from opposition, either elected or scholarly or street voiced; governments are susceptible as well to the ‘equal treatment’ argument - why support Catholic schools and not other religious/special groups schools? And then there are those non-educational matters that arise without warning - most often with financial implications - but which, as they are addressed by government and others, may well threaten the education system currently in place. In short, there are many voices quite able to argue why government support of Catholic schools is no longer in the public’s interest.

The challenge, then, for the Catholic communities in such provinces is to articulate convincingly that, contrary to those anti - voices, there is every good reason to continue the public funding of Catholic schools. Of course, historically, every jurisdiction argued for government support of Catholic schooling, the arguments emphasizing the thinking of the times. And government support of Catholic schools is not one-sided; from the first days of European settlement here Catholic schools have made a demonstrable contribution to the social fabric of this country. We know that and fair-minded governments know that. Nor is there any reason to believe that such will not continue to be the case. Certainly, over the past 20 years, Catholic voices have articulated in one form or another, the wisdom of governments to continue the public support of Catholic schools. That energetic argument continues. I note, for example, the upcoming OCSTA meeting in January with its theme “Advancing the Catholic Education Agenda”. Likewise, similar advocacy meetings occur regularly in Saskatchewan and Alberta. So too, in Manitoba and British Columbia which operate on a different model of education which sees approximately 50% coverage of Operating through government grants. Tackling the issue head-on is wise and bound to bear fruit. The contrary idea, to keep one’s head low, produces little but mutter and leaves the Catholic community vulnerable when challenges come.

CCSTA: If you could go back, do you have any regrets or wish you or anyone could have done something differently?

BON: As for the situation in NL twenty years ago - in hindsight, I have no regrets. I was convinced then and remain so that those of us who were directly involved in negotiations with government did everything we could to reach a conclusion that would be honorably acceptable to all parties. There is no need to repeat here what went wrong with the negotiations - I have written about that elsewhere and stand by what I have written.

That said, it is natural that some may wonder if there could have been a different outcome to the matter – it was, after all, a major change to the education system in the province. Every now and then, though, I meet someone who offers an untenable comment like, ‘We should have held out for one or two schools.’ To which I reply: A) Who’s the ‘We’? Those of us directly involved with the government included the Bishops, the provincial leaders in Catholic education, the Catholic school boards, and a host of gifted and insightful advisors from within and beyond the Catholic community, including some from other provinces. No doubt any one of us could be replaced but to date, no voice has articulated a clearer road to a settlement that would see Catholic schools continue with the blessing of the government.

  1. B) What does ‘held out’ really mean? In all the negotiations, what was sought was the continuation of rights, it being understood by all parties that such rights in a particular situation would be affected by population, arrangements with other educational jurisdictions, etc.
  1. C) And what is meant by ‘one or two schools’? At the time there were 160 Catholic schools throughout the province - no doubt, given the exigencies of particular situations, population changes, etc., that number would come down over time. To suggest, however, to 158 of those school communities (many of them largely populated by Catholics) that their school had to go in favor of one or two schools would have met with the appropriate uproar. To suggest that all those rural schools should go in favor of a couple of urban schools would have met with the disdain it deserves.

No, there was no other legitimate proposal that Catholics could put on the table that was acceptable to government. Again, the record is clear - when government began to openly manipulate the very system it had put in place, the Courts found their actions legally unacceptable. In response, government, with the acquiescence of certain key parties in other denominations, moved through the use of two referendums and legislation, to totally remove Catholic and other denominational schools and establish a single public system of education. The loss of Catholic schools in this province is still very painful to contemplate but Catholic representatives bear no guilt for that loss by their stance in negotiations.

 

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