Separate Schools for Minorities:
Lessons of Multiculturalism
for Public Education

By: Sushil Jain

From: Currents Vol.6, No.3 pp. 13-14
© 1990 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

Recently an umbrella multicultural, multifaith group has advocated separate ethnic schools for specific groups like the Jews, Sikhs and Muslims. It is argued that since the State provides public funds for separate Roman Catholic schools it is discriminatory for the State to deny such consideration and privileges to other religious or ethnic minority groups.

Such an argument is justified on legal grounds. Section 93 of the Canadian Constitution, which delegates the responsibility of education to provinces, also provides for the establishment of separate (Christian) denominational schools. With the change in our demography and a rising number of non-Christians now living in Canada, it is quite appropriate to argue that the constitution be interpreted in favour of establishing state-funded non-Christian separate schools.

Furthermore, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would also seem to give credence to such demands. Freedom of religious conscience and the parental right to give children the "right" kind of education cannot be denied

However, such an interpretation may go against the true intent of a multicultural society as opposed to a segregationist model. In a multicultural society children of all hues and religions should be prompted to attend non-sectarian unitary schools without any distinction of colour, creed or nationality. The rationale behind such a unitarian system would be that children can best learn other people's cultures by living, learning and playing with people of cultures other than their own.

Canada's unique contribution to the concept of multiculturalism is much different from that of South Africa or Muslim theocratic states. Canada's multicultural policy, as envisaged in the early 1960's, did not promote separateness. Early philosophies and policies of multiculturalism in Canada were benign. They were based on toleration and accommodation and harmonious relations between different groups and races.

But multiculturalism in the 1990's seems to be taking a different shape. It has become akin to ethnocentricism, i.e., displaying "the emotional attitude that regards one's own group or culture as superior and is contemptuous of other groups and cultures" (The World Book Dictionary, 1969: 716). We say this because such an attitude seems to be quite evident in the demands for separate ethnic schools being made by the multifaith, multicultural organization as reported on the CBC radio (Windsor) on November 7, 1990.

The basic argument is that their children are special which, no doubt, they are. They state that the linguistic and religious needs of their children are not being met by the present-day public school system. Since the Roman Catholic and other Christian denominations have state-funded private separate schools, the ethnic minorities must also have separate, publicly funded private schools for their children. The staff of such schools will probably come from their own ethnic communities.

The curricula of such schools will contain, if not emphasize, teaching and learning of their ethnic languages and religions. Ideally children of other ethnic or linguistic origins will not be enroled in such schools. This argument is in line with the expressed opinions of some French parents who do not want non-French children in their schools (The Windsor Star, November 7, 1990).

In fact these arguments ask for a segregated system of schooling based on children's ethnic heritage. This is the kind of system South Africa has now. Is this the shape of public education we want to see in the near future? Is this what multiculturalism has taught us in the last twenty years?

I hope not. But if this is the message our multicultural policies are giving to the minority ethnic communities, I am against it. I am of the opinion that such an approach to "multicultural" schooling is a segregationist policy for separate schools for separate people. If Canada is to remain a united nation and wishes to call itself a multicultural nation, the government must refrain from funding private ethnic or religious schools.

It is in the interests of ethno-cultural communities to have a unified system of public education which is attended by children of all races and religions. The only system of education that the government should support is a unified system of public education. If ethnic schools are to flourish they must be at a private expense, not public.

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