In Ontario, Catholic School Board Amalgamation is More Important than Ever
St. Maurice Catholic School in Etobicoke. Photo courtesy the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
This article was first published in Canadian Dimension.
Municipal elections in Ontario are fast approaching, and the oft-forgotten school board races are more important than ever. These elections are often left out of the discussion in part because of how complicated they are: every public school in Ontario is under the auspices of either the English, French, English-Catholic, or French-Catholic school boards.
For months, numerous candidates for trustee have been criticized for transphobic remarks, or even for basing their entire campaigns on the exclusion of trans people from public schools. Vote Against Woke is a website that seeks to promote candidates who are alleged to oppose the spread of “woke-ness” in Ontario public schools—essentially, anything that promotes the inclusion of marginalized students. While this group has endorsed 10 candidates for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), they have endorsed 12 for the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), including multiple in the same Catholic school board ward. This is despite the TCDSB having only 40 candidates across 12 wards.
Why would over a quarter of the candidates for one school board be endorsed by such a group? Individuals who promote racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of hate have decided that school boards are where they will fight their culture war—and Catholic school boards are where they have the advantage.
This is, in part, because of low turnout in Catholic school board elections. Votes for TCDSB elections—the largest publicly-funded catholic school board in the world—number in the thousands (compared to the tens of thousands in TDSB elections). Many candidates do not have websites. Outside of major cities, Catholic school boards are often made up of many candidates who are acclaimed. This level of engagement is not conducive to genuine democracy. Many of these positions are practically appointed, only without the eye for qualifications of a hiring committee. Those with the most motivation and means to run tend to be wealthy and focused on a small set of social or cultural issues.
In the United States, conservatives have long taken advantage of low turnout in municipal and county elections to fill low-level positions with ideological allies across the country. This is an explicit strategy of the Republican Party. It now appears that the Canadian right is taking a page from the same playbook: organizing themselves with similar coalitions and slates.
The Catholic school boards have also been notoriously behind the times. In some well-publicized cases, some Catholic schools have been promoting regressive views to their students, like when schools in Hamilton allowed pupils to earn service hours by attending anti-abortion prayer sessions (with the support of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board). The explicitly religious aspect of the Catholic school boards tends to attract people with more socially conservative views. They know that, in those environments, they will have a better platform to spread their beliefs.
This is not an argument against school boards in general, or the premise of local democracy. As American researcher Domingo Morel has argued, school boards have been the source of a lot of progress and are an important part of community empowerment at the local level. The answer to the problems on school boards is not less democracy (as represented by more bureaucratic or centralized forms of school governance), but more. In the case of Ontario, amalgamating school boards represents an increase in democracy. Formerly Catholic public schools would be under the jurisdiction of a board that is truly democratically elected. Keeping the boards separate decreases engagement with the governance structures of both school boards and allows reactionaries to self-select into environments where their regressive views will be tolerated.
School board amalgamation is complicated. The existence of multiple school boards is enshrined in Canada’s constitution. This was done as part of the compromise between anglophone, francophone, Protestant, and Catholic communities that lay at the heart of federation. But it is possible, as Québec has demonstrated, and what holds Ontario back is clearly a lack of political will. In the context of the rise of the far-right, this year’s school board elections are an indication that amalgamation is more important than ever. After all, it is crucial not only to ensure children receive a quality education but that we work to stop the spread of regressive and hateful ideology in our school system.