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The Collapse of Denominational Education

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

Whether or not the province should adopt a non-denominational education system became a controversial issue during the 1980s and 1990s. Under the denominational system, Christian Churches had the right to own and operate schools using public money. Critics argued the system was expensive, ineffective, and discriminated against residents who did not belong to one of the recognized denominations. Supporters argued the denominational system helped to cultivate spirituality and morality in a secular world while strengthening community integrity; they also stressed that the churches' right to educate was entrenched in Newfoundland's Terms of Union with Canada.

Growing Concerns: 1980s and 1990s

Demographic and social changes in the late-20th century affected the quality of education in Newfoundland and in Labrador and altered residents' attitudes towards the denominational school system. The number of school-aged residents dropped as the province's birth rate declined during the late-1970s and 1980s. This pushed enrollment down and caused many schools to become partially empty, particularly in rural areas. Growing migration from outport communities into St. John's and other urban centres further contributed to shrinking enrollments and forced many rural schools to close. Those that remained open were often ill-equipped and underfunded. The province distributed money to school boards based on student numbers, so any drop in enrollment also meant a drop in funding.

At the same time, some residents and organizations questioned the relevance of a state-funded denominational school system in an increasingly secular and multicultural society. The denominational system had its roots in the 19th century, when Newfoundland society was relatively homogeneous – most residents were Church of England (Anglican), Roman Catholic or Methodist, with smaller numbers belonging to other Christian denominations. By 1980, however, significant numbers belonged to religions other than Christianity, or professed no religion at all.

In 1984, the Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association (NLHRA) sent a brief to the Minister of Justice criticizing the school system, stating that: “The greatest single threat to equality of religion and freedom of worship [in the province] is the restrictive nature of the denominational educational system. It is recommended that a second alternative be available for students who are not of faiths which benefit from a special constitutional privilege, or that denominational schools be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion.”

Calls for change came from other sectors as well. In 1986, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association (NLTA) and a Royal Commission on Employment and Unemployment strongly criticized the denominational system. Both argued it was unnecessarily expensive and resulted in poor student achievement. The NLTA asked the government to establish a royal commission to investigate the education system. Its request was seconded by the Economic Council of Newfoundland and Labrador and the St. John's Board of Trade.

Royal Commission Appointed

The government appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Education in 1990, which was chaired by Leonard Williams, an Education professor at Memorial University. The Commission's mandate was to investigate and make recommendations concerning all aspects of the organization and administration of the province's primary, elementary, and secondary school systems. During the next two years, the Commission held 36 public hearings in 29 centres across the province and met with students, parents, teachers, principals, school district staff, government agencies, and other interested parties to seek advice and gain insight into the education system. It also conducted research projects to investigate such matters as the cost of the denominational system, the use of instructional time, curriculum delivery, and the history of cooperative services in education.

In September 1991, the Commission surveyed 1,001 people equally distributed throughout the province and found that 79 per cent favoured a single school system for all children. The most widespread reported complaints against the denominational system were that it was needlessly expensive, did not adequately educate the province's youth according to North American standards, and was undemocratic; although the government provided the money, church-appointed officials decided how to spend it.

The Commission presented its report, Our Children Our Future, to the provincial government in March 1992. In it, the Commission recommended that there should be a single education system which “involves the formal integration of all faiths and the development of policies and practices which would involve all citizens in schooling and school governance. At stake is not only the moral direction of the school system, but the basic quality of education for all our children.” (221)

Non-Denominational School System

The government took steps to replace the traditional denominational school system with a single secular system soon after receiving the Commission's report. In 1994 it published a white paper called Adjusting the Course, which outlined the government's plan to create a unified inter-denominational education system. To do so, however, the government would have to make constitutional changes to the province's Terms of Union with Canada. Specifically, the province would have to amend Term 17, which guaranteed the churches' rights to administer education in Newfoundland and Labrador.

On 5 September 1995, the province held a referendum in which the majority of voters (54.4 per cent) supported amending Term 17 to create a single inter-denominational education system that would encompass all denominational systems. The federal government approved the revised Term 17 on 4 December 1996 and the province passed legislation later that month re-designating denominational schools as inter-denominational.

During the summer of 1997, however, the Roman Catholic Church, Pentecostal Assemblies, and 29 parents successfully challenged the re-designation process in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland. Justice Leo Barry ruled on 8 July 1997 that the province did not have the right to abolish separate denominational schools and that unidenominational schools could not be closed without consent from denominational committees.

With the education reform process effectively stalled, the provincial government decided to propose a second amendment to Term 17 that would establish a non-denominational education system and remove entirely the churches' rights to administer education in the province. It held a second referendum on 2 September 1997, in which 73 per cent of all voters supported the proposed amendment.

Backed by a substantial majority vote, the province received permission from the federal government to again amend Term 17 on 14 January 1998. The revised Term 17 stated that: “(2) In and for the Province of Newfoundland, the legislature shall have exclusive authority to make laws in relation to education, but shall provide for courses in religion that are not specific to a religious denomination”.

The provincial government passed legislation to create a uniform, publicly funded non-denominational school system and it assumed full responsibility for education in Newfoundland and Labrador. It also established larger school districts, reduced the number of schools operating in the province, and created parent advisory councils to allow the public to make a greater contribution to the education system. School boards became non-denominational and members were to be elected by the public instead of appointed by church.

The Roman Catholic Church challenged school reform at both the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and the Newfoundland Court of Appeal, but court rulings invariably upheld the constitutionality of the revised Term 17.


The province successfully adopted the non-denominational system at the start of the 1998-99 school year. In the wake of this reform, several religion-base\d private schools opened to accommodate families who favoured unidenominational schools; these included Holy Cross Community School at St. Alban's and St. Bonaventure's College at St. John's.


What The Opposition Had To Say:

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 15, 1997


Catholic priests across the province warned the faithful that Tobin's government was doing nothing less than kicking God out of the classroom - and welcoming in the secular and the profane.



Alice Furlong, vice-chairman of the Catholic Education Association in St. John's. In the words of Furlong, the majority of Newfoundlanders have "voted to strip away and crush our rights."


''We see this as a direct attack on minority rights,'' says Gerald Fallon, executive director of the Catholic Education Council in St. John's. ''Never in the history of Canada has the government taken away minority rights.''

But church groups are adamant that the provincial government's move is really aimed at stripping churches of their constitutional rights and replacing religious-based schools with secular ones. Control over teacher hiring, for example, would be lost.

''I think there's a general trend across Canada that public-sector schooling is the only way to school children,'' Mr. Fallon says. ''We don't agree with that.''

'The idea of Catholics paying to operate their own schools as they do in US is laughed at here,'' says Professor Graesser, who has polled extensively on the school issue.

What Supporters Had To Say:

'"About 70 percent of people say some religion in the school is okay,'' says Mark Graesser, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's. ''But they feel religious indoctrination is no longer desirable. They feel it's a discriminatory system that favors established religions against Baptists, Lutherans, Jews, and Buddhists.''

Last week, it was the premier who prevailed, when 73 per cent of voters signalled their desire to replace all church-run schools with a single, government-run education system. Flush with victory, the premier exuded Christian charity, while making it clear that the time for debate was over. "I think we have a responsibility to reach out to those who had a different view," Tobin toldMaclean's. "In the new vision we're embracing, nobody is excluded, everyone is included."


There is little doubt that, if Parliament approves a constitutional amendment, Tobin will have sparked an epochal shift in his province's education system. In other provinces, Protestant schools eventually became public and nondenominational, albeit existing alongside publicly funded Catholic schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec. But secular schools never gained a foothold in Newfoundland. When the province joined Confederation in 1949, Newfoundland's schools were controlled by seven denominations: Catholic, Anglican, United, Moravian, Presbyterian, Salvation Army and Seventh-day Adventist. Under the Terms of Union, each was granted constitutional protection to run schools, a right extended to Pentacostals in 1987. Last week's vote paves the way for eliminating those guarantees, and setting up a provincially run system as early as September, 1998.


It is not the first time Newfoundlanders have voted on the issue. In 1995, Tobin's predecessor, Clyde Wells, held his own referendum on a much milder proposal to reduce - but not eliminate - church control over education. After a narrow 54 to 46 per cent victory for the Yes side, the Newfoundland legislature called on Ottawa to amend the Constitution accordingly. Although the amendment easily passed a free vote in the House of Commons, 35 Liberal MPs voted against it. A majority of senators also balked, stalling the amendment for six months before sending it back to the Commons with some changes. But last December, the House gave its final approval to the original amendment, handing the province greater control over education while still guaranteeing denominational schools where numbers warranted.

Following last week's referendum, the Newfoundland legislature passed a resolution asking Ottawa to amend the Constitution once again, allowing Tobin to proceed with his even bolder bid to entirely abolish church-run schools. But despite the premier's decisive victory at the polls, such an amendment is expected to come under even closer scrutiny in Ottawa. That is because the ticklish issue of minority rights has also been raised by a similar request from Quebec, whose national assembly voted in April to replace denominational school boards with linguistic ones by September, 1998. Eugène Bellemare, a francophone Liberal MP from the Ottawa area, is among those who say he is likely to vote against both the Newfoundland and Quebec proposals - in part because of the precedent it would set, in the event of secession, for anglophones in Quebec. "I'm concerned about minority groups who can be pushed aside because of a provincial referendum," says Bellemare. "It guarantees survival of the strongest."

1997: Twenty Five Years ago Newfoundland voted to get rid of their separate Catholic schools.

-The question posed in the 1997 referendum was this: "Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?"

-A whopping 73 per cent of voters said yes. 

-Since the province's church-run school system was part of the Constitution, Newfoundland and Labrador needed a constitutional amendment in order for the change to go through. Canada's Senate passed the amendment in December of 1997.

-That same month, the Senate passed a very similar constitutional amendment for Quebec. It allowed Quebec to restructure its school system from a religion-based system to one organized along linguistic lines. 

-Today, only three provinces maintain a system of publicly funded separate schools (primarily Catholic) alongside their public secular systems - Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The other three provinces did have separate systems for a while, but opted to get rid of them.

Manitoba did it way back in 1890.

Quebec did it in 1997.

And Newfoundland and Labrador became the latest to do it, in 1998, following a referendum on the issue.
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