The sectarian factor

Sherri Aikenhead May 13 1985

The sectarian factor

Sherri Aikenhead May 13 1985

The sectarian factor

Sherri Aikenhead

As campaigning began for the Ontario election six weeks ago, leaders of the three main parties concentrated on the issues they believed voters cared most about —jobs, health care funding and other dollars-and-cents concerns. But

throughout the campaign another complex and divisive issue haunted the candidates, angering voters and perplexing politicians who, for the most part, tried to avoid discussing it. Still, former premier William Davis’s decision to extend public funding to Roman Catholic high schools emerged as a key issue in the campaign. Indeed, within hours of his Conservative party’s crushing setback,

Premier Frank Miller told reporters that of all the issues raised in the campaign, the main problem for his party,

“from the people I’ve talked to, was the school issue.”

Davis’s decision last June—just four months

before he announced plans to step down as party leader—rekindled historic sectarian divisions in the province. It provoked a renewed debate over the separation of church and state, worried public school teachers who feared for their jobs and angered non-Catholic parents and school boards who argued that the quality of education might suffer, with

about $40 million a year in additional funding being used for Roman Catholic education. The issue also posed a dilemma for the major parties. Non-Catholics charged that Davis’s decision was part of a deal with Toronto’s Emmett Cardinal Carter to win Roman Catholic votes, but Miller supported his predecessor’s decision—with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

At the same time, neither David Peterson’s Liberals—who traditionally have won the support ^ of Ontario Catholics —nor Bob Rae’s New 9 Democrats could afford 1 to antagonize Catholic I voters. The silence of the z political leaders “leaves g us in one hell of a posi-

tion,” declared Lorna Mae Bailie, a Toronto non-Catholic mother of three. When the election returns were in, Peterson’s campaign manager, Ross McGregor, concluded that Miller’s Tories “suffered on the issue because of the process of making the decision, rather than the decision itself,” and acknowledged that the Liberals also “may have been hurt by the ‘conspiracy of silence’ charge.”

The dispute over funding Catholic education in Ontario dates back to Confederation. At the time, legislators from Canada West agreed to provide funds for Catholic elementary education in return for a constitutional guarantee of Protestant education in Catholic Quebec. Over the years, Ontario’s Catholics —who currently make up 35 per cent of the province’s 8.6 million population —pressed for the extension of public funding through the last three years of high school. Ontario governments resisted that demand—leaving parents to pay the costs privately—until Davis acceded, by announcing that beginning in the fall funding of Grades 11,12 and 13 in Catholic schools would be introduced a year at a time.

Rarely debated in the early stages of the campaign, the issue gained prominence after the 35,000member Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation ran newspaper and television advertisements last month to protest a policy which they say will cost 5,000 non-Catholic teachers their jobs as Catholic students in nondenominational public high schools leave for newly funded Catholic institutions. Then, only a week before the election the Anglican archbishop of Toronto, Lewis Garnsworthy, thrust the issue into the forefront of the campaign. His comparison of Davis’s decision to the orders of Hitler’s Third Reich was widely censured.

For his part, Miller said his government will now reconsider its plans to introduce funding legislation this spring, and Peterson pledged to introduce legislation only after “intensive discussions” with concerned groups. In the meantime, the Metropolitan Toronto School Board considered the possibility of a court challenge—on the grounds that the proposed legislation would violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by discriminating on the basis of religion. But after the stunning Tory setback, the issue may disappear from the legislative agenda.

The Liberals offered voters an employment tax credit for small business that would pay 25 per cent of the cost of hiring a new employee and pledged to allow the sale of domestic beer and wine in grocery stores, provide $100 million for nonprofit housing and institute dental care for needy senior citizens and children until they finish elementary school.

Although the NDP’S campaign tended to be overshadowed by the Liberals’, party leader Rae proved to be a strong opponent as well. During the campaign Rae vowed to reduce the provincial unemployment rate of 8.7 per cent by two percentage points in one year. As well, he pledged to improve child care programs and to introduce tough legislation to help preserve existing jobs. Rae got off his best political shot when a truck spilled toxic PCBs along the TransCanada Highway near Kenora on April 13. “In Miller’s Ontario every cloud has a sulphur lining,” declared the NDP leader.

But Miller himself turned out to be the main target for both opposition parties. At the start of the campaign, Tory officials exchanged the premier’s traditional plaid jackets and folksy image for blue suits. Miller’s genial personality rarely came across in his written speeches. As the campaign progressed, the gentlemanly Miller nervously attacked his opponents with unusually snide insults such as labelling an NDP policy a “dumb socialist idea.” And the once-stubborn provincial treasurer spread spending promises and shifted policies.

As a result, Miller will now have to start again in his attempt to ease the voters’ suspicions of his personality and policies. That will not be easy. Angered by their election setback, many Conservatives are already arguing privately that Miller is not a winner —and that he should resign. Although an open split in the party is unlikely, the bitterness could further weaken the Tories.

In 1981 William Davis won his seat in Brampton, just outside of Toronto, by more than 15,500 votes. It was an easy victory for the seasoned, popular and conscientious campaigner. But last week in the same riding, Robert Callahan, a 47-year-old Liberal lawyer, defeated Conservative Jeff Rice, a 25-yearold businessman, by more than 4,000 votes. That turnaround in the affluent heart of what was once Conservative country was a telling indication to Miller’s party of the magnitude of the task ahead.

With Ken MacQueen in Bracebridge, Ann Walmsley in London and Richard Winston in Toronto.

Ken MacQueen

Ann Walmsley

Richard Winston