The president of a group of young Liberals says Catholic school board officials are trying to shut down discussion about merging Ontario's Catholic and public school boards, and he has provided Xtra with emails that corroborate his claim.
Shan Arora, president of the Young Liberals of Oak Ridges-Markham, says his group has been the target of a coordinated online backlash from members of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) and the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association (OCSTA) after it submitted an idea to merge the boards as a policy suggestion for the Liberals' new “Common Ground” initiative. (Read the full policy paper.)
“We see the Catholic board as unjust because it is discriminatory to other minority faiths and people of no faith, especially when we consider the huge economic savings that could come from a merger,” Arora says. “A significant majority of Ontarians don’t think we should be offering publicly funded Roman Catholic education."
He says one important reason to consider merging the boards is ongoing discrimination against non-Catholics, LGBT students and teachers, and pro-choice students. Last year, the province passed the Accepting Schools Act after a long fight with Catholic boards, which were refusing to allow students to set up gay-straight alliances (GSAs). Catholic school officials have also objected to the province's proposed update to the sexual health curriculum, forcing it to remain shelved since it was launched in 2010.
From a purely fiscal perspective, Arora says, merging the boards makes sense. Recent studies have examined the potential financial savings to Ontario if it were to stop funding Catholic schools, with some estimating the annual savings to be more than $1 billion.
Last month, Premier Kathleen Wynne put out a call to Ontarians of all political stripes, asking for ideas for a virtual “suggestion box” to help the party craft its next election platform. Participants are invited to “vote” for their favourite ideas and join the online discussion. Once all the ideas are collected, Arora says, the party will take a serious look at the most popular suggestions ahead of the next election.
So far, “Common Ground” has generated more than 875 ideas, including the idea from Arora's group, which was posted Sept 28 and shot up in popularity to the number-four spot, making it one of the most popular policy suggestions within the first few days.
But it raised the ire of OECTA governor Chris Crowley, who was quick to blast Arora's group on Twitter, asking, "Please explain how 'equity' is achieved by removing the rights of a minority group."
Arora responded, explaining that other provinces, including Quebec and Newfoundland, have successfully ended funding of Catholic boards by amending the Constitution.
“The original reasons for a separate school system no longer exist," Arora says. "Catholics are not a minority in Ontario. There’s no threat to them anymore. So it’s gone from protecting a minority to now conferring Catholics special rights.”
After a back-and-forth debate on Twitter, Arora says, Crowley stopped writing. OECTA did not respond to Xtra's request for comment.
“The next day we noticed a flood of negative votes,” Arora says. “The voting pattern changed. It went from a positive 74 votes to below negative 80 now. And here’s the thing: you can click on who voted against it and see the list . . . If you look at the names, you see they are all religious education officials and Catholic teachers.”
Arora says Crowley and other Catholic officials flooded the site to vote down the policy and make it appear as if the idea has less support than it actually does.
Meanwhile, Arora provided Xtra with emails circulated by Roger Lawler, project manager for OCSTA, and OECTA president James Ryan, both of whom urged members “to vote for the continuation of the Catholic school system.”
“Your action and the action of your board team, staff, colleagues is needed,” Lawler writes, before providing instructions on how to locate the post. “Please vote that you DISAGREE with the policy suggestion.”
When reached by phone, Lawler declined to speak about the issue before hanging up. Ryan did not respond to Xtra’s requests for comment.
In his email, Lawler, a former director of education at Waterloo Catholic District School Board, asks members to forward the email to members of the Catholic diocese to get the word out.
“So OECTA took action because it seems they felt threatened by our policy,” Arora says. “They told their members to vote against it, and that’s still happening right now.”
Arora says it’s disingenuous for Catholic officials to tip the vote. He wants a real debate on this issue and says they are preventing that from happening.
Meanwhile, the number of Ontarians opposed to the funding of Catholic schools continues to grow. A February Forum Research poll about the issue found that 54 percent of Ontarians support merging the two school boards to create one secular school system for each official language.
“As Liberals, we stand up for social, progressive values,” Arora says. “That’s what this is about. It’s about fairness. Catholic schools are discriminatory. So, the conclusion we came to is there should be funding for every faith or we move to a secular system. Ontario can’t afford to fund all faiths.”
The next step is convincing the Liberal Party of Ontario to adopt the policy idea into the official platform, Arora says.
“We hope that the Ontario Liberal Party will adopt it; however, we understand why any party is reluctant to do so,” he admits. “That reason is why we still have this system in place, because every party is afraid to. Every party except the Greens, of course.
“Merging the boards is completely feasible. This can happen. It should happen. It just needs to be done,” he says.
Kelly Baker, press secretary to Wynne, did not respond to Xtra's request for comment by press time.
“The reason people are so hesitant is because OECTA is a big donor of money to the party, and they help canvass,” Arora says. “But we need to not worry about who is supporting us, as opposed to what’s the best thing for the province.
“There are so many people against the funding of Roman Catholic education. We should be worried about losing them as supporters. We may lose the Roman Catholic supporters, but we’d gain so many other supporters. I’d rather be in a party that stands up for what we believe in, as opposed to just trying to appease those in Roman Catholic education.”
Last week, an Ontario judge dismissed a court challenge to the province’s funding of Catholic schools. The judge said he came to his decision because the plaintiff did not have legal standing as a “taxpayer” to challenge the government, not because the arguments had no legal merit.
Nick Mulé, chair of Queer Ontario, applauds the group of young Liberals and their “brave” policy suggestion.
“It seems these young Liberals are trying to push for something innovative and radical,” he says. “When this kind of thing happens, it scares the party, and they try to silence them. I hope that doesn’t happen here. It goes to show there are voices rising up within political parties and challenging the authority. That’s good to see.”