Politics Social Policy

Publicly funded Catholic schools a ‘political quagmire’ in Yukon

The Yukon Green Party wants to abolish public funding for Catholic schools in the Yukon, arguing that public funding of “religious education is morally indefensible” and gives Catholics “a privilege all Yukoners know is unfair.”

Yukon funds three Catholic schools, all of which are in Whitehorse. Michael Behiels, professor of Canadian Political and Constitutional History at the University of Ottawa, calls the issue of funding separate schools a political “quagmire.”

“Since there is an established convention of public funding of Catholic separate schools, managed under the public school system, it will be a bit complicated to end this regime without a referendum to get the political authority to do so,” he says.

A referendum on the issue is exactly what Kristina Calhoun, president of the Yukon Green Party, proposes. The party’s May 20 press release says that “Yukon is not constitutionally required to fund Catholic education” and in e-mail correspondence said that the referendum will let taxpayers decide to continue or end a practice that, according to her, discriminates against other religious groups and people with no faith.

Yukon created denominational schools under Ottawa’s authority, Behiels says. When Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1905, the provinces chose to ignore the denominational schools already existing in the NWT; later, to attract the Catholic vote, they decided to fund such schools.

The Yukon Education Act states that the territory can make laws regarding education, but must respect all rights and privileges arising from the Yukon Act, a federal law that sets out which areas of lawmaking are federal and territorial government responsibilities. The Yukon Education Act also states that the territorial government shall “provide each School Board with funding sufficient to meet the requirements of its approved annual operations and maintenance budget.”

Calhoun says that a 1962 agreement between Yukon’s Commissioner and the Catholic Episcopal Corporation is all that obligates the Yukon government to fund Catholic schools, but since “Catholics are fair minded and justice oriented,” this agreement could be “ended amicably” and thus “save the taxpayers the cost of a referendum.”

The Greens are also depending on the opinion of Tom Ullyett, who as former assistant deputy minister was quoted in Yukon News as saying the Yukon legislature does not need to amend the Yukon Act or the Education Act to end publicly funded Catholic schools. Ullyett is now the deputy minister.

The New Democratic Party’s Lois Moorcroft, education critic for the official opposition, says the Green Party, who to her knowledge has not declared if it will field any candidates in the upcoming election, is “irresponsible” for trying to “stir the pot” on an issue that is “divisive” and not a priority for Yukoners.

The Green Party holds no seats in Yukon’s legislative assembly. The governing Yukon Party must call an election by October, and the Greens are likely hoping that the publicly funded religious schools issue catches fire before then as it has so many times throughout Canadian history.◉

 Photo credit: Gareth Sloan (CC)

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