Canada Struggles with Secularism. What Can We Do? – A chat with Dave McKee, Communist Party of Canada

The flag of the Communist Party of Canada, a staunchly secularist organization.

Despite being a secular nation, Canada struggles with promoting secularism, as schools and hospitals are highly influenced by religion. An interview with Dave McKee, Communist Party of Canada, on the country’s problems with religiosity in the public sector.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What stereotypes do you often hear about communism in Ontario and Canadian discourse?

Dave McKee: We certainly hear less of the old Cold War stereotypes than we did 15 or 20 years ago. Some of this change is because a lot of time has passed, but I think a lot of it also has to do with an increasing desire for alternative political views that can help explain the increasingly difficult concrete conditions that people face in their daily lives.

That said, there are some stereotypes that occasionally emerge here in Ontario. One is that Communists are a band of authoritarians who want to impose a rigid, mechanical society that is opposed to individual rights. Another stereotype is that the Communist Party is a political movement that is funded by foreign governments. I even had someone ask if, as a communist, I would outlaw pizza!

These statements aren’t at all true – the Communist Party of Canada is a “home-grown” movement that has fought for over 95 years to achieve socialism in this country. Our vision of socialism includes the profound extension of democracy into all aspects of political, economic, social, and cultural life.

Probably the most common stereotype, though, is that “communism has failed” and so our movement and Party are condemned to be ineffective. This is simply ahistorical. True, socialism was overthrown in the USSR and Eastern Europe, but any honest assessment of socialism in those countries will clearly reveal the tremendous achievements and vitality of a dynamic system that transformed the lives of millions of people for the better. I would never argue that Soviet socialism was perfect, but it was not a failure – it still stands as the bar against which current and future liberative movements must seek to measure up. The fact that socialist and communist movements are growing all over the world suggests to me that it is capitalism, not communism, which is failing.

Jacobsen: The UK is more secular than Canada. This gives more flexibility for secular activists too. What organizations should young politically-minded students look into?

McKee: In Ontario, where I live, the main arena for secular activists is probably public education. The provincial government funds a Catholic school system, parallel to the public school system, and this situation has come under increasing criticism and opposition. There are several avenues for activists to get involved in this area – local school councils (sometimes called parent councils) are a good option, although they are not specifically focused on this question. Another option is the Campaign for Public Education, a coalition of labour and community activists, that has worked for many years on issues of equity, funding, and democracy within the public school system.

Another public institution in Canada with lingering religious involvement is hospitals, many of which maintain an association with a particular church or religious order, even though they are publicly funded. The biggest issue for hospitals and healthcare is opposing privatization, so we don’t see a sharp, ongoing debate around religion and hospitals. There are moments when it springs up, though, as in the recent arguments over whether Catholic hospitals should offer medically assisted suicide. These same hospitals have, at different times, been the centre of debates around abortion services. In Ontario, one of the key organizations campaigning for public healthcare and hospitals is the Ontario Health Coalition.

For young secular activists who have a Marxist or socialist perspective, a good organization to look into is the Young Communist League (YCL). This is an organization of youth and students that is politically united with the Communist Party, but organizationally independent. The YCL is active on a range of political and social issues, in both domestic and global contexts.

The publicly-funded system is very slowly becoming more secular, but that there also is a growing religious education sector that is privately funded. Image: Getty Images

Jacobsen: You have taken stances against the separate publicly-funded school system in Canada. What is the situation now? Is it becoming more secular or less so?

McKee: It’s a bit of a tricky issue.

Recent studies show that, over the past 15 years, Catholic school enrolment in Ontario has fallen by around 6%. Through the same period, public school enrolment, in general, has also fallen. We can conclude two things from this: First, the proportion of public school students who are enrolled in Catholic schools is slightly reduced. Second, the proportion of students who are enrolled in private schools has increased –many of these institutions are religious, but information about the proportion is not readily available.

Looking at this, we could say that the publicly-funded system is very slowly becoming more secular, but that there also is a growing religious education sector that is privately funded.

Jacobsen: How did Canada implement this separate publicly-funded school system? What effects did and does this have on the democratic values of the country? What are some warnings for other countries’ young people with similar histories regarding their school system, e.g. the faith schools in the UK?

McKee: The whole genesis of Catholic school funding is rather bizarre. It dates back to the “original” constitution of Canada, the British North America Act of 1867 (BNA), which preserved the education rights of certain religious minorities in Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec, respectively). At that time, there were concerns among the ruling class, which was English, about the language and religious rights of the anglophone Protestant minority in francophone Catholic Quebec. These rights were secured through language that pointed to the example of Catholic rights in Ontario, and were preserved. Concretely, Catholics were entitled to a Catholic school in Ontario and Protestants were entitled to a Protestant school in Quebec. This language is so specific to Ontario and Quebec that it is not even entirely clear how binding it is on other provinces in Canada.

Currently, it is generally interpreted as enshrining the right of Catholic schools in Ontario to receive the same public funding as the secular public school system. It is probably the most-used argument against establishing a single secular school system in Ontario.

This is problematic and undemocratic on so many levels. Catholic school funding is based on a constitutional provision that emerged through the desire of English-speaking Canada to protect and maintain its privileged and powerful minority within Quebec. As such, it is a universalized policy that is peculiar to a particular dynamic in Canada – the oppression of the francophone nation by the anglophone nation. But here we are now, a century and a half later, and some basic questions are being asked: “What about the rights of other religious minorities in Ontario?” “How appropriate is a policy that equates religion with national identity?” “Should religious education be publicly funded at all?” “Since society is dynamic, shouldn’t the constitution reflect and respond to changes over time?” “If an institution is to be publicly funded, should it not also be governed and delivered in a manner that is universally accessible?”

The biggest issue for hospitals and healthcare is opposing privatization, so we don’t see a sharp, ongoing debate around religion and hospitals. Image: AAPC

In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Commission considered the issue of Catholic school funding in Ontario and determined that it was a discriminatory practice. The committee stated that, in order to comply with its legal obligations, Ontario should either stop funding Catholic schools or provide education funding to all religious schools. The government chose to ignore the decision, maintaining a policy and practice at odds with international law.

As you note, the issue of public funding for religious schools is not unique to Ontario or Canada. While there are differences between the situation here and, say, that of faith schools in the UK, the current effect of publicly funded religious education is substantially the same in at least three ways:

1. It preserves the dominance of one religion (in this case, Christianity) over all others;
2. It ensures that religious views generally maintain a high profile within society, far out of proportion with a relatively smaller population of actively religious people; and
3. It continually ascribes a sizeable and broad public role to a specific religious institution, thereby hampering the fully universal provision of public services, which can only be achieved through secular institutions.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dave.

McKee: Thank you!

About Scott Jacobsen


Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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