eurel     Sociological and legal data on religions in Europe and beyond
You are here : Home » Canada » Law and religion » Specific fields » Education » Religion and Education in Canada

Religion and Education in Canada

Canada’s governments are organised in a federal system in which powers are divided between the central government, ten provinces and three territories. This division of powers was established in the Constitution Act of 1867, also known as the British North America Act or the BNA Act. Section 93 of the BNA Act identifies education as a matter of provincial jurisdiction with the result that there is not a “Canadian” system of education.

The federal system was adopted largely as a resolution to 19th-century tensions between French and English settlers, the French Roman Catholic minority being worried about the English Protestant majority. However, other regions had also demanded that constitutional protections protect their unique identities which had evolved over the time of European settlement, their populations having arrived from a variety of European countries. Education was seen as a critical social practice to ensure cultural survival, one result of which is that the education system in Canada is characterised by considerable diversity. This includes the ways in which religious diversity has been managed in provincial education systems.

However, along with and transcending Canadian educational diversity, there are a number of common characteristics which have both cultural roots and constitutional boundaries. Culturally, there is a consensus that education is a key state strategy to ensure citizenship values and skills considered essential to a liberal democracy. Citizenship values are enshrined in the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) which identifies freedom of religion in Section 1(c) as a right deserving constitutional protection. The protection of religious freedom and equality was affirmed in the Constitution Act of 1982 in Sections 2 and 15. Provincial legislation, including the provisions regarding education and human rights, must comply with the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982 and the Canadian Bill of Rights.

That said, there is a great deal of latitude in how provinces and territories have interpreted the Constitution Acts in managing religious diversity in education. Constitutional interpretation has occurred in dynamic processes involving political advocacy on local and provincial levels and in federal and provincial courts. The categories most relevant to the regulation of religion tend to include “public”, “private” and “separate” schools. However, the implications of those categories are often contested among citizen groups and state regulators. For private and separate schools, issues of access to state funding and the status of academic programs in relation to graduation diplomas have been important. Public schools have seen debates over the space for religion in “secular” space. These can include topics like prayer spaces, clubs self-identifying as “religious”, dress codes, distribution of “religious literature” and religious symbols.

In addition to formally organized schools, education is delivered in home school settings. Home schooling is legal in every Canadian jurisdiction provided that students have access to “satisfactory instruction”, supervised by the boards of education overseeing the region in which the homeschooling family finds itself. Homeschooling has been an important strategy to perpetuate religious identity and family-based values among religious groups but not exclusively so, homeschooling being motivated by a variety of reasons as the preferred education delivery practice.

The exception to Section 93 of the British North America Act is First Nations schools which are under federal jurisdiction and funding. Against the backdrop of a dark chapter of Canadian history, they are governed by the bands in which they are organized. Historically First Nations schools were state strategies of assimilation, largely administered by Christian churches, designed to undermine Indigenous identity and continuity. The policies included “Residential Schools” which have been the subject of a great deal of critical examination, both for their colonial purpose and for the abuses of power which have left a legacy of pain and disruption in Indigenous communities and families. One part of reconciliation has been the increasing control of First Nations schools by the bands in which they occur, their purpose having shifted to the retention of Indigenous identity and spirituality.

“Public schools”, identified as “secular”, are fully funded in all provinces and are clearly owned and operated by state actors, primarily Ministries of Education and public school boards which are creations of the provinces. “Separate Schools” operate under the umbrella of Roman Catholic church structures and are funded in a variety of ways, ranging from being fully funded in the province of Ontario to partially funded in other jurisdictions. Funding and regulatory policies for “private schools”, many of which are “faith-based”, are unique to each province and territory. For example, in Ontario, private schools do not have access to provincial funding, while other provinces link funding for private schools to levels of compliance with provincial ministry of education standards. In some Alberta school boards, “faith-based schools” have been included under public school umbrellas and are fully funded while retaining the rights to their religious identities. However, schools must comply with provincial regulations as interpreted by the school boards with which they have negotiated agreements to retain their status. In Canada the designation of “faith-based” schools cannot be restricted to “public”, “separate” and “private” designations, since they occur in all three categories, depending on provincial regulation.

There is a great deal of common ground among all schools and school boards about the protection of religious freedoms and equality rights of students. All provinces and territories have anti-bullying and discrimination provisions in their Education Acts and other documents. There is much less consensus about the role of religion in academic programs. Generally, faith-based schools tend to see religion as fundamental to their school cultures, including their academic programs. Public schools incorporate religion into their academic programs in a variety of ways, ranging from an optional “world religions” course to more robust offerings of religion education. Faith-based schools see religion or their form of religion as an important element in their graduate profiles, with the preferred outcome being that graduates retain their religious commitments. Public schools tend to view religion as a private matter of choice in which the school plays a role to equip students with citizenship values and skills to make good choices that contribute to social harmony.

The purposes of First Nations, public and faith-based schools are not mutually exclusive, all schools having commitments to citizenship values and the common good. The world of education in Canada is dynamic with lively debates among stakeholders who are deeply invested in its outcomes. Religion and religious diversity add a layer of complexity in which religious freedom and equality rights are balanced with social cohesion. Debates and contests over the achievement of those balances are older than Canada itself. However, throughout Canada’s history, voices of religious groups continue to emerge, claiming the right to educate their children so that their traditions will continue to be a part of the Canadian story into the future.

D 17 May 2021    ALeo Van Arragon

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

Follow us:
© 2002-2024 eurel - Contact