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Caruso Parnell: Ontario’s discriminatory law

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(YUSUKE UMEZAWA/FLICKR)

It was heartwarming to read recently in the CJN that Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, supported by Ontario MPPs from all parties, was presenting a motion in the legislature to formally condemn Quebec’s controversial and discriminatory Bill 21. They are right to condemn a law that discriminates on the basis of religion and restricts public sector employment and advancement only to those whose faith (or lack thereof) doesn’t require them to be visibly identifiable by symbols, namely dress. It’s a terrible law. More politicians in Canada need to stand up and state that obvious fact.

But Ontario has its own terrible law, Section 93 of the 1867 Constitution Act, which Quebec opted out of in 1997 leaving Ontario to persevere alone lop-sidedly for the past 23 years. This law, created as part of a grand Confederation-era bargain to protect minority language rights, has enshrined religious discrimination in the hiring of teachers and other education workers in Ontario for over 150 years. As a fully bilingual teacher in Ontario, with active French-language education rights, I have 30 per cent fewer job opportunities than my Catholic colleagues. The same is true for non-Catholic educational assistants, early childhood educators, psychometrists and speech-language pathologists. Even job postings for casual custodians in Catholic school boards feature language requiring that members of those school communities exemplify the teachings of Jesus Christ, presumably while waxing the floors.

These are schools we all pay for. Every single Ontarian contributes to the maintenance of this discriminatory system, even when we are subjects of that discrimination. Teacher candidates in Ontario who are baptized Catholics hedge their bets by taking religious education courses and attending church long enough to pull together a faith portfolio that will get them through the hiring process. Lesbian and gay teachers remain closeted at work. Students are bused past their nearest school and, particularly in rural communities, schools sit half-empty because we have parallel, separate systems, costing taxpayers of every faith (and none) an estimated $1.6 billion annually. It is a system that breeds hypocrisy and it deprives students in all systems of the kind of course choices, extracurricular activities and special education services they need and deserve.

Meanwhile, the same politicians who are willing to call out the discrimination enshrined in Quebec’s Bill 21 are allergic to even looking Ontario’s discriminatory system in the eye. Only one candidate in the race to succeed Kathleen Wynne as Ontario Liberal leader (Alvin Tedjo) has addressed it in their platform and Horwath’s own position in the last election was to support the status quo while chastising candidates who didn’t. It takes a special kind of willful blindness and cowardice to condemn what’s happening next door while ignoring it in your own house. I don’t even have put on my kippah to be discriminated against in Ontario’s publicly funded school system, I merely have to exist as a non-Catholic teacher. Every year that passes without political leadership brave enough to point out the absurdity of protecting the discriminatory status quo takes its toll on the credibility of politicians who claim to be seeking efficiencies in our education system or to be protecting religious freedom and human rights. It’s a pox on all their houses, especially given that those houses appear to be made entirely of glass. They might want to be a little more careful about throwing stones across the Ottawa river at their colleagues in Quebec if they don’t want that pointed out.

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Emily Caruso Parnell lives in Sudbury, Ont. She is a full-time arts educator, a part-time ballet teacher and a volunteer synagogue president.