Egerton Ryerson’s role in the creation of residential schools, however debatable, has prompted his erasure from Canadian public memory. Most dramatically, in June 2021, his statue was toppled and beheaded on the campus that then bore his name; the following year, the institution rebranded itself Toronto Metropolitan University. Yet, as Robert Crocker notes in Religion and Schooling in Canada, the energetic Methodist minister and bureaucrat’s fingerprints remain on much of this country’s educational system.
As superintendent of education in the mid-1840s, Ryerson tackled disputes between Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Protestant dissenters in Canada West, as Ontario was then known, by creating public or “common” schools, where there would be no distinctive religious instruction. Those who could not abide such arrangements — above all Roman Catholics — could run “separate schools,” which were nonetheless funded by taxation. Two decades later, the architects of Confederation baked this type of state support for religious schools into the foundation of the Dominion of Canada.
Section 93 of the British North America Act enshrined the rights of existing denominational institutions and allowed them to appeal any provincial infringement of those rights to Ottawa and, ultimately, to London. The 1982 patriation of the Constitution was a missed opportunity to dissolve this hasty marriage of church and state. Indeed, section 29 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reaffirms the old section 93, in apparent contradiction of the modernizing declarations of other sections on religious freedom and opposition to discrimination.
Crocker’s book is both a patient attempt to understand how this strange compromise arose and a dogged argument that it is high time to do away with it. As a former associate deputy minister of education in Newfoundland, Crocker is quite familiar with the secularization of his own province’s education system in the late 1990s. In some ways, Religion and Schooling in Canada reads like an expansion of his own notes from that time. Its rigorously, even oppressively detailed historical portions convey the happenstance creation of public support for religious schools in much of the country. But they are also abstract: while swarming with bills, clauses, and court cases, these passages are sparse in their discussion of people and their complex, shifting beliefs.
However dry the narrative is at times, Ryerson would have relished Crocker’s portrayal of a Roman Catholic hierarchy packed with ultramontane theocrats who have never completely acknowledged the state’s moral authority but have excelled at wringing concessions from it. Although the recognition of separate schools in Ontario by the British North America Act extended only to primary education, the Church stretched that compromise to cover a system of secondary schools, which later won Charter protection too. At the time of Confederation, the educational landscape in Quebec was naturally quite different than in Ontario. Most of its public schools were de facto Roman Catholic institutions, with Protestants generally left to create “dissentient” state schools. Down to the Quiet Revolution a century later, the Church was free to run its classrooms with a high hand, without ministerial interference or oversight.
There are as many exceptions to and variations on the story of spiritual empire building as there are provinces. The anti-Catholicism of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick meant that they had no public religious schools to merit constitutional protection; when Manitoba entered Canada, the Church’s efforts to argue that it had operated such schools “in practice” though not in law failed after an appeal to London. British Columbia had no state education before it joined Confederation, and its numerous Catholic schools therefore today belong to the private sector —”independent,” albeit partially supported and regulated by the province. And in Ontario, legal challenges from non-Christian parents have chiselled away at the residual religiosity of common schools, turning them into secular institutions rather than merely non-denominational ones. Nevertheless, there remains a large Roman Catholic state sector, not just in Ontario but in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In fact, its privileges have become more anomalous with time, as Protestant denominations have relinquished their state schools.
The Catholic Church’s power plays were most obvious in the residential school system that was formalized in 1884. The education of Indigenous students was a federal rather than a provincial responsibility, and, especially in Western Canada, it was one that successive governments farmed out. Long after most denominations recognized the serious harms of the schools, the Catholic hierarchy clung to them — and even argued for expanding the system to secondary education. Catholic clergy liked the arrangement because in wresting children from their homes, they primed them for the pedagogy of “permeation,” through which the Church would condition “all aspects of schooling.”
But is a Voltairean purge of the Church from state education either possible or necessary today? Crocker argues that provinces can sweep aside the Charter’s roadblock to change. The government in St. John’s won two referendums when it decided to seek a constitutional amendment to allow it to do away with religious public schools. Quebec’s nationalists were simultaneously successful in amending the Constitution so they could recast its system along linguistic rather than religious lines. This seismic disruption of the province’s Catholic foundations aroused little disquiet among the laity, whose attendance at Mass had long been in steep decline.
Of course, what is constitutionally viable in one place is not always politically feasible in another. No party in Ontario or Alberta has shown the courage to make constitutional amendment an electoral issue. Furthermore, the lack of robust data on educational outcomes adjusted for parental background or selection bias makes it difficult to say how pushing the Church out of public education altogether would affect its quality. Crocker’s case for reform remains ideological rather than pragmatic: an ecclesiastical anomaly should not and probably cannot stand. Yet relatively few Western societies run the kind of purely secular system of state education he would like to see.
Even if we could exorcise these Victorian ghosts, we would not end strife over education. In Quebec, Bill 21’s ban on religious symbols in the classroom has exposed the instability of state secularism in a province that has lurched from anti-clericalism to Islamophobia. Elsewhere, as Crocker concedes, vociferous opposition to curricula on gender, sexuality, and religious diversity has come not from Catholic bureaucrats, who work with the state to maintain their ecclesiastical preserves, but from awkward squads of individuals who appeal to parental rather than to denominational rights. With a steady influx of non-Catholic pupils likely to moderate the already mild ethos of modern Catholic schools, the separation of church and state seems no more vital to civic harmony than it is imminent.