When students at As-Sadiq head to for school in the morning, they carry the same textbooks their peers in the York Region District School Board take to class.
But on top of the English, math and science books that they and their peers lug to school, As-Sadiq students have another text in their curriculum.
That extra book is the Qur’an. As-Sadiq, you see, is an Islamic elementary school. This Thornhill school is one of many independently financed faith-based schools currently caught up in the debate of publicly funding religious schools in Ontario.
At face value, the issue appears to be solely a matter of equity in freedom of worship about whether we should provide all faith groups with the same opportunities for religiously flavoured learning that Ontarios Catholic schools currently enjoy.
But beneath this faade is the issue of how much autonomy these schools will enjoy in hiring teachers to preach a spiritually themed syllabus. If they accept public money, will faith-based schools like As-Sadiq maintain the right to include religion as criteria for hiring teachers?
For Andy Steger, As-Sadiqs vice-principal, the issue is an important one.
“If the Ministry of Education is saying that (all of our teachers) should be Ontario College of Teachers members, thats not scary, ” said Steger. “But if the ministry is saying we have to hire equal numbers of Islamic and non-Islamic teachers, thats scary.”
Scary, because hiring teachers who are not dedicated to the schools faith may possibly compromise the schools religious flavour.
“You want to have a model for students,” Mustafa Rawji, an As-Sadiq board member, said of religious school teachers. “You want a model who is Muslim or Jewish or Christian, depending on the school.”
On the other hand, Ontarios publicly funded Catholic schools remain safe from the complications of this issue. They have safeguarded their right to hire Catholics over non-Catholics teachers since the time of Confederation. However, publicly funded Jewish, Islamic and other religious schools have no such protection under the Canadian Constitution.
This technicality has yet to be addressed in the controversy of faith-based school funding.
The Catholic experience
In 1985, when Ontario allowed full funding of Catholic schools with tax dollars, the issue of whether Catholic schools were allowed to show preference for hiring teachers of Catholic faith was addressed in the Section 136 of Bill 30. Catholic schools were not allowed to show religious preference when hiring teachers if they agreed to accept full public funding, in keeping with the virtues of equality and fairness in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those applying to become teachers in Catholic schools had been evaluated on qualifications alone.
In short, no longer was it required to be Catholic in order to teach in an Ontario Catholic school.
At the time when Bill 30 was rolled out, this stipulation was one of the issues that St. Michaels College faced when it decided to opt into public funding. After a short trial run on tax dollars, the school decided that it was unwilling to sacrifice the right to control their schools own religious identity, and resumed its original status as a privately financed Catholic school.
“As a Catholic school, its important that the staff support the vision of the school and the mission of the school,” said Father Jim Murphy, a Basilian Father at St. Michaels.
That mission and vision includes preparing “young men to seek life eternal in union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
“Faith integrates not only the whole life of the student, but also the community of the school, said Murphy. As an independent Catholic school, we see responsibility to not just teach religion, but to be an example of the faith. We want the people we hire to be examples of that faith.”
But fast forward about 27 years from 1985, and there is a very different story about hiring policies today in publicly funded Catholic schools.
“We do have the right to hire (only) Catholics,” said Oliver Carroll, Chair of the publicly funded Toronto Catholic District School Board. “Although at the same time we have to be mindful that there are other people with qualifications and we need them from time to time.”
So what accounts for this disparity? According to Education Equality in Ontario, an education advocacy group, the reason is the eventual elimination of Section 136 by the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Court ruled in 1997 that Section 136s obstruction of preferential hiring had violated the denominational rights of Catholic Schools enshrined in the Constitution.
“Nothing in any such Law,” Section 93 of the Constitution reads, “shall prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to Denominational (Catholic) Schools.”
Nothing is said in reference to Jewish, Islamic or other faith-based schools.
So what does all of this mean for the faith-based schools that stand to benefit from public money?
“In (section 136s elimination), it was decided that Roman Catholic schools do have a right to insist that their teachers be Roman Catholic.” Said Leonard Baak, President of Education Equality in Ontario. “Other faith-based schools will not have the same licence to discriminate on the basis of religion.”
While the Catholics were lucky in that the Constitution protects their right for preferential hiring, other faith schools would be in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if they did the same.
This technicality means that religious schools like As-Sadiq may not be staffed by teachers who share the schools official faith, should public money enter the equation. While the school does have some non-Muslim teachers in its ranks, the criteria of religion nonetheless remains important in selecting teachers, especially when it comes to instruction in the Quran.
“Were a small school, and the aspect of faith is so crucial and important here.” Steger explains. “We would resist any mention or innuendo of anything that would compromise the Islamic perspective in this school.”
Steger says, maintains that there would be “no way” As-Sadiq would be willing compromise its “desire to hire Muslim teachers where needed” if public money is involved.
As the issue of control over preferential hiring has yet to be decided, these complications mean that As-Sadiq, for one, has adopted a wait and see approach before throwing their wholehearted support behind John Tory.
“The more money you get, the more strings there are,” said Steger. “We would like to see what those strings are first.”