4 min

What to do about Ontario school funding?

If we want supportive schools for queers, must we extend those supports to religious groups?

As a columnist, I don’t usually question my opinions, especially in a column itself. My job is to develop a firm opinion on an issue, set it down in print, and then stick to it doggedly through thick and thin.

But sometimes the complex realities of the world have a way of interfering with certainties. And such is the case now when it comes to the issue of public funding for religious schools. I’ve been forced to ask if it’s possible for me to oppose such funding — which I desperately want to do — without being a hypocrite.

Let me explain. As those who have followed this column — and I’d like to think there are a few of you — know, I spent the duration of the Ontario election hammering away at John Tory’s plan to publicly fund religious schools. I argued then, and still believe, that given fundamentalist beliefs found in all religions, such funding would be an open invitation to teach homophobia on the public dime. And Tory’s airy willingness to leave such issues to the overwhelmed Ontario Human Rights Commission, coupled with the inability or unwillingness of the ministry of education to look an inch beyond the curriculum, did nothing to ease my worries.

I opposed the plan because I thought it was poorly thought out and because I didn’t like the idea of segregating students from certain religious backgrounds. And it appeared that a majority of you, and of Ontario citizens, agreed with me.

But here’s the thing. As the debate over whether to establish fully-funded public schools in Toronto with Afrocentric curricula aimed at the city’s black students has heated up, I find my instinct is to support the creation of such schools. I believe that black students, in Toronto certainly, are badly treated by the system. I think they have little chance of being taught about their history or about black role models or of seeing their daily reality reflected in the classroom. I think they’re subjected to bullying and racism on a daily basis, sometimes from teachers and staff. And I think they’re often unfairly singled out for discipline under a Safe Schools Act that seems designed to target them.

And if those arguments sound familiar, it’s because they’re largely the same ones we’ve used to support the creation and continuation of Toronto’s Triangle Program, the plucky and underfunded sanctuary for queer students that operates out of a church basement.

I argued during the election campaign that the parties should commit to not only providing more funding for the Toronto Triangle Program, but should expand it across the province. Since then my conviction that this is the right stance has only hardened.

Late last year, I wrote about the suicide of a 13-year-old boy in Ajax, Ontario, who was being bullied both physically and via computer for being gay. Had he had access to something like the Triangle Program, he might still be alive. That program is literally a matter of life and death for some of the queer kids enrolled in it.

But, I ask you, can I support the Triangle Program and schools for black youth and still oppose religious schools? I think you can say, despite the assertions to the contrary by various fundamentalists, that most kids aren’t bullied or discriminated against for being Christians. But Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus? How can I say they’re not bullied for their religion? A boy wearing a turban, a girl wearing a hijab, you can’t tell me they’re not going to face bullying in school.

I argued during the election campaign that parents who are determined that their kids learn their religion can teach it themselves at home or in their places of worship. But so, you can argue, could the parents of black students teach their children about their culture and heritage and history.

But most don’t or can’t. Should black students then be denied the right to learn about their heritage and to be taught a curriculum shaped to their needs? And if they should have that right, shouldn’t Muslims or Sikhs be taught under the same conditions?

There is, I think, a difference between learning about history and culture and learning about religious belief. But if you’re trying to teach Muslim history and educate students about prominent Muslims in society, it’s going to be hard to avoid talking about religious beliefs.

Now the Triangle Program and the proposed black schools are completely under the control of the Toronto District School Board, whereas Tory’s religious schools would have existed under some poorly defined relationship with the nearest public school board. Establishing very strict school board control over all of these schools might serve to prevent the homophobia that so worries me. But it would involve adding even more layers to already unmanageable board bureaucracies.

So essentially, I’m faced with a vicious circle of an argument. If I want to support separate schools and programs for queer and black students, can I then oppose funding for religious schools? And if I support funding for religious schools, will those schools then teach kids homophobic beliefs that will create the need for more exclusive spaces for queer students?

I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. It’s a hugely complex problem, balancing the needs and vulnerabilities of minority groups against each other in a multicultural society.

So I’m going to throw the question open to you. If we want to provide a safe and supportive atmosphere for queer students to learn in, are we obliged to then extend those same supports to other minority groups, including religious groups who hate us?

Let me know what you think. On this one, I can use some help figuring out what to support.