Curriculum controversy: sex education and the Catholic school system

The province of Alberta and the Albertan Catholic school system's current dispute over sex education curriculum harken back to Confederation, says history professor.

Tia Lalani - 23 January 2018

By Daniel Sims

The recent and ongoing dispute between the province of Alberta and the Albertan Catholic school system over sex education curriculum, especially on the issue of LGBTQ relationships, brings to light questions that have existed in Canada since Confederation. Namely, whether publicly funded separate religious schools should exist in Canada and how conflicts between religious doctrine and state policy should be resolved.

At the heart of these concerns is the French-English divide that emerged in British North America following the conquest of New France. Immigration and secularization have since obscured this fact, but it is also the case that at one time Roman Catholic was equated to French while Protestant was equated to English-and in most provinces-the public school system. This delineation might seem highly problematic to us today, but at a time when religion was part of the curriculum for all schools in Canada, it was seen as a way of avoiding conflict.

Since education is constitutionally a provincial manner, each province is free to establish its own school systems. Three provinces-British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island-chose not to establish a publicly funded separate school system, meaning that in these provinces private schools have limited access to public funding and, therefore, must be self-sufficient. Indeed, prior to 1977, BC refused to fund any school outside of the public school system.

All of the other provinces have or have had a publicly funded separate school system. Newfoundland-Labrador took it to the extreme: when it joined Canada in 1949 it had seven denominationally-based school systems. And although union would begin in 1969 with an Anglican, United Church, and Salvation Army integrated school system, it was not until after two referendums in 1995 and 1997 that a single system was implemented there in the 1998-1999 academic year.

One hundred and eight years earlier Manitoba had done the same, much to the anger of the Métis, who had fought for a bilingual-bicultural west during the Red River Resistance. Technically not aimed at French education, this move was nevertheless seen as an attack on Franco-Manitobans as a whole since they were predominantly Roman Catholic. Attempts to get the federal and imperial governments to reverse this move failed, and the Laurier-Greenway Compromise effectively "ended" the issue in 1896 by allowing extra-curricular religious instruction in schools.

As far we know no one lost their life because of the Manitoba Schools Question. The same cannot be said for the New Brunswick Schools Question. In this case, the province created a unified school system in 1871 much to the anger of the Acadians. Many refused to pay the new schools taxes and two individuals were killed following rioting in 1875: Acadian Louis Mailloux and militiaman John Gifford. Foreshadowing the Laurier-Greenway Compromise appeals to the federal and imperial governments failed and the "solution" found was allowing extra-curricular religious instruction.

Publicly funded separate school systems are protected by Section 93 of the Constitution Act 1867. Section 93 emerged from a time in Canadian history when it was assumed Canadians belonged to western Christian faiths and could be categorized based on which side their Church took during the Protestant Reformation. This policy excludes Eastern Christians and non-Christians. Yet in many provinces, it remains in place because of the Constitution. Currently, the province of Alberta is attempting a Québec approach-enforcing uniform curriculum.

It raises the question, however, of why have a publicly funded separate Catholic school system if you won't allow it to be Catholic? Moreover, as others have argued, this present debate can't be simply regarded as a case of religious freedoms versus LGBTQ rights because there are those who find themselves at the intersection. Some LGBTQ people find great meaning and purpose in their faith and want to remain in their Catholic communities. Their faith, just like their sexual orientation and gender identity, is equally important to their identity and informs how they conduct their lives.

Daniel Sims, History, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on January 9, 2018.