Newfoundlanders Vote for New School System

It was a classic dustup - one that some wags dubbed "the premier versus the Pope.

Newfoundlanders Vote for New School System

It was a classic dustup - one that some wags dubbed "the premier versus the Pope." When he announced just six weeks ago that his government would hold a referendum on whether to scrap Newfoundland's 277-year-old denominational school system, Premier Brian Tobin, a practising Roman Catholic, boldly took on the leadership of his own church. It was high time, he argued, to give parents - not the clergy - ultimate responsibility for public education. In response, 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. 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 told Maclean's. "In the new vision we're embracing, nobody is excluded, everyone is included."

But however decisive Tobin's victory, not everyone agreed with his assessment of the result. Among the dissenters was 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." She adds that she cannot understand why Catholics, who account for 37 per cent of the province's population, as well as other religious minorities, will not continue to be allowed their own schools where numbers warrant. That is something currently guaranteed to Newfoundlanders by the Canadian Constitution, which must be amended before the province can implement the changes. "If this were done to another minority in Canada, there would be outrage," said Furlong. "Can you imagine if every Canadian could decide that Quebec should not have French as its first language?"

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."

Despite such concerns, most political observers agree with Tobin's own assessment: in the end, Ottawa will have little choice but to respect the wishes of Newfoundlanders. That is precisely the sort of leverage Tobin had sought when he called the vote on July 31. The premier was clearly angered by a Newfoundland Supreme Court injunction, won by parents' groups, that halted plans to close or restructure 80 Catholic and Pentacostal schools, and lay off almost 470 teachers. Faced with the court decision, he launched a spirited battle that reminded many of his 1995 campaign as federal fisheries minister against Spanish overfishing on the Grand Banks. "I think this injunction made Tobin see red," says Bill Rowe, a onetime Liberal cabinet minister and host of Newfoundland's most popular open-line radio show. "If he's taken on, he likes to battle back and win."

The premier also had clear indications that a strong victory was within his grasp. Recent opinion surveys had shown a healthy majority of Newfoundlanders in favor of a public school system. In large part, say analysts, that reflects the secularizing forces that have been at work throughout Western society. But in Newfoundland, there were additional factors at play. The Mount Cashel scandal of 1989, which saw several priests convicted of sexually molesting young boys in their care, has eroded confidence in religious authorities. And for more than two decades, there has been a steady drop in school enrolment, from a peak of 163,000 students in 1972 to 106,000 last year. That decline has put pressure on the government to consolidate resources and avoid administrative duplication.

However divisive the issue, the margin of Tobin's victory cannot be denied - a victory that many observers also chalked up to the premier's refusal to waffle on an important question. Memorial University political scientist Mark Graesser, who has done polling on the issue for 20 years, notes that Tobin showed voters that he was willing to offer a clear, radically different vision of public education. Rowe, who shares that assessment, says that callers to his show expressed another sentiment as well. "Even as the two sides debated," he says, "they registered their fatigue with the issue, and their desire to see it resolved." For politicians and religious leaders tempted to second-guess the referendum results, that is a message they ignore at their peril.

Maclean's September 15, 1997