The Religious Right’s Attack on Manitoba’s Public Schools

Brian Pallister with Andrew Scheer in Ottawa in 2018. Photo by Conservative Party of Canada (Flickr).

Recent efforts by conservative leaders to weaken the diversity and independence of Canada’s educational institutions show that the religious right is alive and well in Canada—and they are gunning for our schools.

In the last few months, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s pledge to cut funding to secular public schools by slashing education property taxes, and federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer’s proposal to offer tax credits to parents who choose to send their kids to private religious schools, threaten to open the door to the Christianization and privatization of Canada’s public school systems. These efforts represent a cynical attack on Canadian diversity and the strength of its educational institutions.

While American politicians often wear their religion on their sleeves, elected officials in Canada are cagier about their religiosity, preferring to let hardline positions rooted in faith-based ideologies remain relatively concealed. For example, the Wikipedia pages of both Pallister and Manitoba’s Minister of Education Kelvin Goertzen, make no mention of any religious affiliations. Often, however, their religious convictions seep into public life, like the premier’s 2013 Christmas wish to all Manitobans in which he awkwardly referred to “infidel atheists”. Most Manitobans laughed it off as a gaffe, but the episode revealed a glimpse into the mind of a person who considers atheists as sub-Christian and deserving of condescension.

Other examples of elected officials’ faith showing up in public are Goertzen’s refusal to participate in Steinbach’s Pride Parade and his attendance at an anti-abortion rally, or Minister of Health Cameron Friesen’s subcontracting of public statements on issues related to abortion – a healthcare issue – to Minister Rochelle Squires.

Also troubling is Goertzen’s attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. in February of this year, an event featured prominently in the popular Netflix documentary The Family. The event featured a keynote address by Donald Trump, and while the presence of a provincial Executive Council member may seem questionable, the synopsis of episode three of The Family sheds some light on Goertzen’s attendance: “Doug Coe, the Family’s leader, obscures the group’s role in the National Prayer Breakfast, which has become a hub for back room global influence-peddling.”

Goertzen described the event as “three days of meetings where world leaders talk about freedom of religion”.

The Family is a shocking exploration of the influence exerted by powerful Christian extremists in world politics, and the National Prayer Breakfast is their main event. Whether or not Goertzen was there on official government business, this was still an opportunity for the minister to rub elbows with the world’s most influential Christian elite.

When Christian religious extremists talk about “religious freedom”, they are usually talking about Christianization, or the conversion of individuals or entire groups to Christianity. A familiar trope used to justify these activities is the claim that the Christian values underpinning Western life and institutions, along with the integrity of the nuclear family, are under attack (nevermind that the populations of both Canada and the United States still overwhelmingly identify as Christian).

To religious extremists, religious freedom means the right to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding, to refuse to issue a marriage certificate to a same-sex couple, or to deny a woman’s right to a safe abortion.

The National Prayer Breakfast is a Christian event that has been attended by every president since Eisenhower, and it remains an eyebrow-raising dismissal of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. constitution which effectively separates church and state by prohibiting governments to promote theocracy or a specific religion through tax measures. While religious freedom may have a different legal interpretation in the U.S., in Canada it is entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as not only the freedom of religion, but the freedom of conscience and religion. Like their U.S. counterparts’ rejection of the Establishment Clause, Canadian religious extremists tend to ignore the “conscience” component of the Charter.

The Charter-guaranteed right to the freedom of conscience is what forbids taxpayer-funded public schools from religious sectarianism. Public schools ensure all Canadian children have equal access to education without having their autonomy compromised by state-endorsed religious doctrine. Recent moves by both federal and provincial Conservative Party leaders threaten public schools and their inherent religious neutrality.

Andrew Scheer’s recent proposal of tax incentives for parents who choose to send their children to private religious schools is a stunning announcement, as education falls under provincial jurisdiction. Shortly after Scheer’s announcement, Pallister promised to cut education property taxes in Manitoba, vowing to find $800 million in savings throughout government.

Provincial underfunding of education and federal tax incentives for private religious schools is a coordinated alignment of federal and provincial education policy, and could open the door to the privatization and Christianization of Manitoba’s schools.

Manitoba’s public schools are further threatened from within. Section 80 of the province’s Public Schools Act stipulates that “If a petition requesting that religious instruction be given in a school is presented to the school board and is signed by the parents or guardians of at least 25 children, the school board shall pass a bylaw authorizing instruction in religion in compliance with the petition.”

Religious instruction in Manitoba’s public schools has been controversial, and was opposed in 2015 when Winnipeg School Division trustee Lisa Naylor unsuccessfully petitioned the provincial government to change “shall” to “may” in the aforementioned section of the Act, which would allow divisions more discretion in deciding the type of education delivered to students. The organization that inspired the petition to change the law in 2015 was Child Evangelism Fellowship Inc. (CEF), a Warrenton, Missouri-based religious corporation with offices throughout Canada. The organization produces Christian curriculum for religious instruction in public schools, and is active in at least 44 schools in Manitoba.

CEF has been involved in major court decisions in the U.S., such as the landmark case Good News Club v. Milford Central School. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that under the First Amendment, religious groups could not be denied after-hours access to public schools, in a similar fashion to extracurricular clubs and sports teams. Critics have argued the Milford ruling favours the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment over the Establishment Clause. The Milford ruling has led to church planting in some states, where congregations use public schools for Sunday services, and avoid costs associated with constructing and maintaining their own buildings.

CEF’s curriculum contains misogynistic material, as well as content describing blended families in derogatory terms (this information is in contravention of many Manitoban divisional diversity and inclusion policies).

The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, 2012)

In a 2012 article, journalist Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, writes that the CEF’s interpretation of the biblical story of Saul and the Amalekites glorifies genocide. CEF curriculum also encourages children in religious instruction classes to engage in child-to-child evangelism, with instructions for teachers to tell children it may be God’s will for them to ask other children to join the club. While claiming to be a non-denominational organization, CEF’s curriculum nonetheless has a unique evangelical theology.

Those who believe in a strong public education system tend to believe that it is for the public good, and that all children deserve a quality education without exception. Well-educated young people, after all, are more critical and informed, and make better choices when they enter society. Religious attacks on the public school system show contempt for this valuable public institution, and for the freedom of conscience and religion. Conservative cuts to the public school system, as well as promises of tax incentives for parents of children in private schools, are nothing but thinly veiled religious policies.

JL Beaudry is the father of two children in public school. He is a recent graduate of St. Francis Xavier’s Master of Adult Education program. He lives and works in Winnipeg.

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