Last Week the United Nations human rights committee released its ruling on an issue of central importance to minorities. Though, the case dealt with Canada in specific, it may impact the education rights of minorities in other countries where education funding is denied.
A Toronto Jewish father, Arieh Waldman, who spent almost $100,000 after tax to educate his two sons at a Jewish school, took the issue to the U.N. body after exhausting all options in Canada. Ann Bayefsky, the York University law professor who acted for Waldman, argued that government funding of Catholic schools violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which has been ratified by 144 countries. She convinced the committee that other religious schools should also get funding.
The complaint was filed in 1996 after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the guarantee of Catholic school funding in the Constitution Act of 1867 took precedence over equality guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The case was supported by a number of religious groups, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The court held that Catholic school funding did not violate equality rights, because the right was granted as a bargain at the time of Confederation to entice the large Catholic population of Quebec to join the Canadian union.
Should the United Nations have the right to intervene in how a sovereign nation governs? No sovereign nation would accept that the United Nations has the ability to dictate. Yet, this is exactly what the United Nations has done by giving Canada 90 days to find a solution. Though unlikely to happen, by accepting this decision the government would overturn Canada's federalist structure where the provinces have jurisdiction over education. This issue can be debated ad infinitum, but we will leave that for another time.
The more obvious issue of minorities and their right to educate their children must be tackled in our increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. According to the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, there are 90,600 students in private schools in Ontario alone. About two-thirds of the 705 private schools are religious. Moreover, many parents are shifting to home schooling.
Many parents are concerned about the negative influences in public schools. And I don't blame them. Indeed, my two sisters who teach in the public school system feel so strongly, that if they had their wish they would home school their own children. The peer pressure, lack of discipline and moral decay is striking. Recently, I was invited to address a group of students in a local high school about the legal profession. The place seemed more like a lingerie fashion show. How tough it must be for Muslim and other religiously inclined children to preserve the integrity of their faiths. What was particularly painful was the sight of Muslim students in compromising situations, who I knew from the local mosque, ducking for cover when they noticed me in the halls.
Speaking to reporters after the decision, Waldman said, "For a small minority, it's important to teach it [religion] in order for it to continue." In fact, it is not only the minorities who feel threatened. The biggest movement away from the public schools is within the religious Christian community.
Why should religious parents who don't send their children to public school have to fund the system with their tax dollars? Given that religious freedom is internationally recognized as a basic right, why is the corollary right to religious education not protected? After all, religious freedom without the ability to preserve and safeguard it is useless.
There is a fear that funding private schools would result in the balkanization of society. But by denying funding, the government would create other problems such as sub-standard education. At least if the schools are funded and given stricter government regulation, then educational standards can be improved.
For instance, there are at least half a dozen Islamic schools in Toronto that operate without qualified teachers, any proper curriculum, facilities or resources. In fact, some of these schools are run haphazardly by people who have no experience in education. Indeed, I was recently approached by an Islamic school that had more than 150 enrolled students. They were set to open in September 1999. But the school does not have qualified teachers or a place to hold classes as of today. Moreover, the principal and assistant principal speak minimal English. When I inquired as to how they managed to attract students, the principal responded that it was all through word of mouth. Recently immigrated parents are willing to do anything to get their children out of the public schools.
Another residential school is under investigation by the Health Department for lack of cleanliness and for feeding students lentil soup and rice each day. Children's Aid has also reportedly stepped in because the children have to clean the school and wash dishes. Parents were unaware that the tuition fee of about $5,0000 also allowed their children to participate in such extra curricular activities.
Clearly, there is an urgent need for some kind of solution to remedy this situation. A number of alternatives -- from the voucher system to direct funding of religious schools -- has been toyed with before. Perhaps this U.N. decision can be the impetus for countries with large minorities to seriously look for solutions to the minority educational funding problem.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs