Statement by the Permanent Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning Constitutional Changes to Denominational Schools as Proposed by the Government of Newfoundland

Tuesday, March 05 1996


Roman Catholics share with other Christians and members of other world religions, including Jews and Muslims, the profound conviction that education has a spiritual dimension. As the 1994 Ontario Royal Commission on Learning noted:

  • Central to the curriculum in any school is its culture: the sum of the dominant values, ideas, and beliefs that shape the learning environment and give the school its character and identity. It is evident that in Roman Catholic schools, religion is a core element of the school’s culture and its reason for being. ( For the Love of Learning, Volume 4: Making It Happen, page 57)

Since the early days of European settlement in Canada, there have been schools provided by denominational groups, among which Roman Catholics have been prominent. When certain provinces gathered to form Confederation, one of the essential compromises was the legal recognition of the denominational schools in existence at the time, both Catholic and Protestant. This principle was preserved as later provinces joined Confederation.

By including these schools in the British North America Act, the Fathers of Confederation recognized that Canadian society would be enriched by denominational education. On their entry into Confederation, five provinces and the two territories Ä Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Newfoundland, Yukon and the Northwest Territories Ä recognized the Catholic systems of education that were already in existence by agreeing to fund Roman Catholic schools.

Separate and religious schools are a recognition of the basic rights of parents to educate their children, as was confirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26). However, individuals or families by themselves cannot be expected to pass on those values which people need to maintain a sense of identity. They are assisted in this by intermediary institutions.

Children and youth develop a sense of meaning and values by being consistently assured that love, spirituality, sexuality and social justice ultimately do matter. Yet it is not only families but society that is enriched by faith-based institutions which mediate moral and spiritual beliefs and those attitudes necessary for a continuing sense of community as well as cultural and spiritual identity.


The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has recently brought forth an amendment which, while allowing religious education, would remove the means by which the Churches have any real say in education.

The clear intent of the resolution submitted by the Newfoundland government is to remove the existing constitutional rights of Roman Catholics and other religious groups in the province to establish and operate their own schools.

Effectively, the Government of Newfoundland is asking the Parliament of Canada to take away minority religious rights with regards to schools that are guaranteed by the Constitution of Canada. It is being asked to do this on the basis of a resolution passed by a simple majority of the legislature of one province without the consent of the minority affected. (For a brief outline of how this resolution came before the Newfoundland House of Assembly, see Appendix 1: Background)

It is precisely to protect minority rights against such exercises of power against their will by a legislative majority that the Constitution of Canada protects minority rights in the first place.

Indeed, it is difficult to find other precedents in democratic societies where the constitutional rights of minority groups have been removed or changed over their opposition by legislation enacted in the name of the will of the majority. Such action is certainly not in keeping with the principles and traditions of Canadian governments.

This matter thus concerns the rights of all minorities in Canada. By using the same principle that would be applied in the case of Newfoundland, a majority in any province could seek to block minority rights of general application in Canada from being exercised in that province, claiming it is the only one that would be affected. Such a process could be used to curtail not only religious and educational rights, but linguistic and aboriginal rights as well.

Furthermore, the effect of the proposal would be to deprive the people of Newfoundland of the protection of the constitutional rights enjoyed by the people of the other provinces. It would establish a double standard in minority rights: one for the rest of Canada, and the deprivation of such rights to groups in Newfoundland.

The basic minimum educational rights of Canadian religious minorities are protected by Section 93 of the Constitution Ä or in the case of certain provinces, by equivalent guarantees. In the specific case of Newfoundland, such protection has been guaranteed by its Terms of Union with Canada. However, the Newfoundland proposal would remove Term 17, which deals with these rights, and substitute a new provision in lieu of Section 93. (For an outline of the educational rights guaranteed to Newfoundland by the terms of its union with Canada, see Appendix 2: Denominational School Rights Guaranteed by the Terms of Union)

By failing to make any reference to the rights or privileges that existed by law in Newfoundland at the time of its entry into Confederation, the proposed amendment does not allow the equivalent rights guaranteed by the Canadian Constitution in other provinces to apply to religious groups in Newfoundland.

In effect, the Newfoundland House of Assembly is seeking jurisdiction that no other Canadian province has: to abolish those rights and privileges regarding separate schools that a religious group held when the province entered the Canadian union.


1. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops asks that the Government of Canada take no further action on a proposal that seeks to have the Parliament of Canada remove basic minority rights.

We suggest that there is no implied convention that the Government of Canada must pass such a resolution, especially since it would deprive the people of one province of minority rights that are held in the other provinces of Canada. Indeed, it is to protect the minorities in such instances that the federal government has such sweeping powers under Section 93, paragraphs 3 and 4, of the Constitution Act and Section 22, paragraphs 2 and 3 of the Manitoba Act, as well as that recourse is given to a judiciary independent of political and legislative process under the constitutional provisions affecting Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.

2. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops asks the members of the House of Commons and the members of the Senate of Canada to weigh carefully the implications of this proposal, and to indicate that they cannot associate themselves with the passage of legislation that would deprive minorities of religious and educational rights.

3. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops urges the Catholic people of Canada generally, as well as all groups and organizations interested in education or human rights, to contact their members of Parliament and the members of the Senate from their province to express their concerns about this matter.

4. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops urges that discussions in Newfoundland be resumed by both parties on the basis of financial and educational needs, while at the same time respecting the constitutional rights and privileges that are held in common by groups in Newfoundland and, by extension, with the rights and privileges held by the people of the other provinces.

It should be noted that the Catholic educational authorities in Newfoundland were actively engaged in discussions with the Government of Newfoundland until May 30, 1995, when the government broke off such discussions.

The Bishops of Newfoundland and Labrador have stated that major changes are needed to the educational system in that province so as to ensure greater educational benefits and cost efficiencies. Several times they have gone on record as recognizing the need for such changes and their readiness to cooperate with government in achieving these. It should also be pointed out that such changes are possible without constitutional amendment.

Furthermore, the Bishops and the Catholic educational authorities of the province have indicated that they do not object to the establishment on a non-discriminatory basis of a system of public schools similar to that in other provinces, should the provincial government wish to do this. This objective likewise can be realized without constitutional amendment.


The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, together with the leaders and members of the Roman Catholic Church in Newfoundland, are convinced that the proposition to replace Term 17 of the Terms of Union between Newfoundland and Canada represents:

  1. A significant threat to the rights of all minorities in Canada, not only in the realm of education but regarding other rights as well;
  2. The deprivation to the people of Newfoundland of those rights guaranteed other Canadians;
  3. An erosion of the role of religion in education, and of the educational rights and responsibilities of parents and Churches;
  4. The loss in Newfoundland of that significant contribution to the health and dynamism of public life and culture which the Fathers of Confederation foresaw would be made by denominational schools.

In summary, the proposed amendment is a threat to the rights of minorities that would affect the nature of Canadian society; the communities in which Canadians live; and those institutions by which they express, shape and hand on to future generations their faith and values.

Members of the Permanent Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

Most Reverend Francis J. Spence
Archbishop of Kingston

Eminence Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte
Vice President
Archbishop of Montreal

Most Reverend Henri Goudreault, O.M.I.
Bishop of Labrador City-Schefferville

Most Reverend Gerald Wiesner, O.M.I.
Bishop of Prince George

Most Reverend Aloysius M. Ambrozic
Archbishop of Toronto

Most Reverend Austin E. Burke
Archbishop of Halifax

Most Reverend Michael Bzdel, C.Ss.R.
Archeparch of Winnipeg

Most Reverend Maurice Couture, S.V.
Archbishop of Quebec

Most Reverend Gérard Drainville
Bishop of Amos

Most Reverend James H. MacDonald, C.S.C.
Archbishop of St. John’s

Most Reverend Blaise Morand
Bishop of Prince Albert

Most Reverend André Richard, C.S.C.
Bishop of Bathurst

Most Reverend Raymond Saint-Gelais
Bishop of Nicolet

Most Reverend Anthony F. Tonnos
Bishop of Hamilton

Most Reverend Martin Veillette
Auxiliary Bishop of Trois-Rivières