Denominational Education in Newfoundland

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In the 1980s, Newfoundland’s state-funded denominational education system was still rooted in the nineteenth century. The system had been criticized from time to time: during the early twentieth century, for example, the Fisherman’s Protective Union voiced serious concerns, and the Commission of Government tried to implement reforms in the 1940s but was rebuffed by the churches. During the late 1940s, when Newfoundland was negotiating the Terms of Union with Canada, its delegation insisted on the insertion of term 17 to protect denominational education, a measure that was intended to appease the churches (and Catholics in particular). In addition to the Catholic school system, a separate consolidated school system, run primarily by Protestant denominations, was established by 1956. The consolidated system formed the closest thing to the system of public education that was available on the mainland. But its schools were few in number – only 24 of the province’s 1,193 schools in 1956 – and they served just 8 percent of the school population. Nowhere else in Canada, with the possible exception of Quebec, did the churches enjoy such expansive control of education.

In 1967, the Royal Commission on Education (Warren Commission) recommended that the province adopt a completely secular education system. Phillip McCann attributes the recommendation to the influence of “United Nations policy on Human Rights and Children’s Rights, and North American thinking on development of human resources in a technological age.” However, the commissioners were not wholly united on this controversial point, and three of them authored a minority report in which they accused the majority of violating their terms of reference by considering the denominational issue. They pointed to Newfoundland’s Terms of Union with Canada as a constitutional protection for religious education. The government implemented some of the commission’s recommendations, but the denominational system remained entrenched.

The Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association (NLHRA) had long opposed the church monopoly of education, seeing it as a violation of religious freedom. In 1984, the NLHRA prepared a brief on the Newfoundland Human Rights Code for the minister of justice, arguing that “the greatest single threat to equality of religion and freedom of worship [in Newfoundland] is the restrictive nature of the denominational education system. It is recommended that a second alternative be available for students who are not of faiths which benefit from a special constitutional privilege, or that denominational schools be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion. The best resolution of this issue would be an immediate court reference to seek a declaratory judgment concerning the scope of Term 17 of the Terms of Union.” [Clément 2008] Under the system of that time, teachers could be fired for not following the tenets of the faith, such as marrying outside the church. Anyone who wished to vote in a consolidated school board election or run as a candidate was required to belong to the Salvation Army, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, or the United Church (similar restrictions applied in the Catholic system). In 1987, 120 people gathered at Memorial University to debate the merits of denominational education. Lynn Byrnes, who served as NLHRA president after 1982, stated that the system was “based on some very blatantly discriminatory policies which we feel must be changed … If these legal rights allow such cut and dried examples of religious discrimination then the legal rights are wrong.” [Clément 2008]

The boundaries of denominational education expanded during the 1980s. In 1987, Pentecostals were added to the list of religious affiliations under term 17 and were thus assured of state funding for their schools and a voice in the administration of the educational system. Within a few years, however, there was a clear movement to challenge church control of education. Significantly, this movement was led not by the NLHRA but by the provincial government. In 1990, Premier Clyde Wells appointed a royal commission to study the efficiency and operation of the school system. In its report, Our Children, Our Future, the commission recommended a reduction of the churches’ role in education while at the same time suggesting that the system continue to promote Judeo-Christian values. The government and the churches began to negotiate regarding reforms, but when the talks broke down, Wells chose to hold a referendum to revise term 17 and to introduce a public school system. With 54 percent voting yes, the government moved ahead to amend term 17, only to find itself blocked by the courts, which ruled that the revised term 17 allowed the province to take over the administration of the school system but not to close down the schools themselves. Frustrated at its inability to establish a unified and secular school system, the government held a second referendum under the direction of Wells’ successor, Brian Tobin, to revise term 17 so that the churches would have no say in running the system. With 73 percent voting yes, Newfoundlanders finally achieved a fully secular public school system in 1997.


Further Reading

Clément, Dominique. Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

Clément, Dominique. “Equality Deferred: Sex Discrimination and the Newfoundland Human Rights State.” Acadiensis 41, 1 (2012): 102-27.

Clément, Dominique. “Searching for Rights in the Age of Activism: The Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association, 1968-1982.” Newfoundland Studies 19, 2 (2003): 347-72.

McCann, Phillip. “Denominational Education in the Twentieth Century in Newfoundland.” In The Vexed Question: Denominational Education in a Secular Age, ed. William A. McKim, 60-79. St. John’s: Breakwater, 1988.