Newfoundland Votes Down Church Schools

It was meant to end the whole agonizing debate.

Newfoundland Votes Down Church Schools

It was meant to end the whole agonizing debate. But when the final vote was tallied last week - 54 per cent in favor of the Newfoundland government's proposal to end church control over the provincial school system, and 46 per cent against - distinguishing the losers from the winners proved difficult. Cheers echoed through the St. John's offices of the province's Catholic Education Council, whose leaders insisted that the government's slim margin of victory would force it to reopen negotiations with the churches. Across town that same night, Premier Clyde Wells declared the eight-point gap "difficult to ignore." Yet, even the strong-willed premier seemed disappointed at the fact that only 51.9 per cent of Newfoundlanders had even bothered to vote on his government's plan to proceed with a constitutional amendment that would allow education reform.

Still, Newfoundland has a history of basing big decisions on close results. The province, as Wells himself pointed out, entered Confederation in 1949 after a provincewide referendum vote of just 52 to 48 per cent. What he neglected to note was that nearly half a century later the question of whether joining Canada was good for Newfoundland remains an emotional one for many Islanders. Late last week, the Liberal cabinet decided to press on with plans to reform the education system - thus virtually ensuring that the historic referendum of 1995 would also hold an enduring and controversial place in Newfoundland history.

The government, after all, is messing with some 270 years of religious tradition. Missionaries from the Church of England set up the first schools in Newfoundland in the 1720s. And church control of schools was so much a part of Newfoundland society that it was entrenched in the Constitution under the Terms of Union, the document that sealed the province's decision to join Canada in 1949.

Reform of the education system, as a 1992 provincial royal commission concluded, was badly needed. During two years of negotiations with the churches, the government waved the flag of fiscal responsibility, arguing that it could save up to $30 million a year by merging the province's 27 existing school boards, which are now operated by four separate denominational groups, and creating 10 interdenominational boards in their place.

Church leaders, though, balked at the proposals, maintaining that the government's real intention was to strip churches of their constitutional rights and to replace denominational schools with entirely secular ones.

When it became time to put the matter to a vote, the government simply presented the facts and left Newfoundlanders to decide for themselves. But the No side, particularly the Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches, cut into public support for changing the system by treating the referendum fight like an election - launching high-profile ad campaigns, canvassing door-to-door, even using the pulpit to spread their gospel. "Those who supported the No side ran an organized campaign for a longer period than you would run in a general election," Wells pointed out last week. "So you have to take into account the fact that in all probability virtually every last No vote was gotten out." Now, the pace of change should accelerate. This fall, the provincial government will introduce legislation to alter one of the Terms of Union, which prevents the assembly from making changes to the education system that affect denominational schools. That achieved, Newfoundland will ask Ottawa to formally adopt the changes. On Parliament Hill, the matter is viewed as primarily a provincial issue. Although Ottawa has been deliberately coy about its position, most observers expect the legislation to receive quick approval.

Back in the province, though, the din of debate could get even louder. Last week, members of the No side rode a rollercoaster of emotion - first elated over the great gains their side made during the campaign, then angry over the government's decision to press on with its proposals for change. Some threatened to challenge any legislation to implement school reform in the courts. Others simply vowed to fight on, as good Christians have always done. "People have spoken," declared Gerald Fallon, executive director of the Catholic Education Council. "We will use whatever is necessary to ensure that our rights continue to be respected in this province." Religious or not, a bitter battle may be about to turn even nastier.

Maclean's September 18, 1995