05 August 2015

Minority rights in education #nlpoli

It’s one of those persistent comments.

You don’t hear it or see it every day but, once in a while it comes back.

Like in 2013 .  Some guy used the discussion about access to in formation – specifically rescinding Bill 29 – to wonder if we might be able to rescind the supposedly anti-democratic referendum on denominational education.

That’s actually the most common term in that letter to the editor:

  • “The referendum violated many democratic ideals.”
  • “A 32-day notice for a referendum is disrespectful of democratic ideals.”
  • “The mandate for both referendums was suspicious and anti-democratic.”

The idea that the referendum was not democratic is one that is especially popular among some Roman Catholics.  They contend the referendum stripped them of their rights as a minority to use public money to deliver a segregated education for their children. One of the leaders of the local segregationists – Bon Fagan – has written a book about the subject. 

The curious thing about the argument is that it is fundamentally wrong.  It’s not morally wrong.  It’s factually wrong. 

The proponents of this view ally themselves with Roman Catholics in other provinces where they may have rights as a religious minority to a separate education system with, possibly, some public financial assistance.

What the Newfoundland segregationists miss is that in Newfoundland and Labrador,  Roman Catholics were not alone in holding rights in education.  Term 17 of the Terms of Union between Canada and Newfoundland continued the rights held  by adherents of the major Christian denominations. They represented an overwhelming majority of the population of the province. The addition of another denomination holding rights in education increased the majority.

The referendum that took place in 1997 involved a vote of all residents of the province, an overwhelming majority of whom held rights in education as adherents or one of the Christian denominations with constitutional rights.  In other words, the majority of residents voted on how they wished to exercise their own rights.

The referendum question was clear:

Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?

The result was also clear.  Here’s how education minister Roger Grimes described it in his presentation to parliament on the constitutional amendment that followed the referendum result:

The result of the referendum was resounding support for the proposed new Term, with 73% answering the question, "Yes". An analysis of the results of the referendum clearly indicates that people of all religious persuasions supported this proposal. In only one of 48 districts was there a majority "No" vote (Placentia & St. Mary's: 43.8% voted "yes", 56.2% voted "no"). In all other parts of the Province, including where the majority of people are Roman Catholic, the majority voted "yes".

The people who were genuinely in the minority were those who were not adherents of one of the Christian denominations with rights in education.  That includes both Christians and non-Christians.  While they also voted in the referendum, their numbers were so small  - less than five percent of the population – that they could not have skewed the majority vote in favour of eliminating denominational rights as they were practiced before 1997.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, a majority voted on their own rights in 1997, not those of a minority.


Another in an irregular series on Great Newfoundland Political Fairytales.