Newfoundland – 1998


Multi-denominational system abolished


The battle for a public school system did not start with Clyde Wells or Brian Tobin.  As unlikely as it may seem, the drive for a common school system predates denominational schooling.

In 1823 prior to the institution of a representative legislature, the Newfoundland School Society was established to provide a non-sectarian education system.  Within two years this mainly Protestant Society was operating seven non-denominational schools on the east coast.  Even the Benevolent Irish Society, that most Irish Catholic of institutions, established its own non-denominational school which later became known as the Orphan Asylum School.

Contrary to what people would have you believe, the early schools were not only non-denominational, they expressly forbade religious education during school hours.

In 1832 Newfoundland elected its first House of Assembly, a group of men who would soon vote public funds to support a non-denominational education system in the fast-growing colony.


But a new wave of sectarian leaders, among them the Catholic Bishop Fleming and Church of England’s Bishop Feild, started demanding separate schools and religious instruction.  In the mid-19th century, amid the rising tide of religious intolerance, the House of Assembly was unable to keep its vision of a common school system.  The vote was split and the money distributed along sectarian lines again and again.

The denominational school system in Newfoundland was rife with discrimination.  All schools operated under the auspices of only seven select religious denominations: Anglican, Moravian, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist, and United Church.

In 1935, the Commission of Government wanted to inject some common sense into the system only to be beaten back by the denominations.  In 1937 the Commission gave up completely and appointed a denomination-dominated council of education to direct policy.  Seven different Christian denominations were given the privilege of using public money to support their schools.


Confederation in 1949 should have been the time for the establishment of a common education system.  But Premier Smallwood, fearing he would lose the referendum, tried bribing the Catholics with Term 17, the infamous clause that cemented the churches’ privileges into  the Constitution.

The Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association agreed with the 1960s Warren Commission into Education in Newfoundland which recommended a totally integrated education system.  Therefore, in the late 1960s and early 1970s the United, Anglican, Salvation Army and Moravian churches, who agreed with this principle, established integrated schools throughout the province.  Despite this co-operation, the system was subjected to increased and harsher criticism.


Parents of Lutheran, Baptist, Orthodox, Mormon, Mennonite, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Bhuddist etc. religions, or agnostics and atheists had nowhere to send their children.

The constitutional provisions regarding denominational education for Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta included an appeal to Parliament against any provincial legislation which did not respect their privilege, as well as provision for federal legislation overriding or amending such provincial legislation.  Term 17 makes no reference to such a federal role as described in sections 93(3) and (4).

Because of this, during discussions for the patriation of the Canadian Constitution, some Newfoundland members of Parliament expressed concerns as to whether the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would affect Term 17 and, more particularly, the rights of the Pentecostal Assemblies, which were not recognized in law until 1954 and therefore were not constitutionally protected by Term 17.

THE  INFAMOUS  Section  29

When the Joint Committee of the House of Commons and Senate studied the proposed Charter, there was a proposal that it not apply to Term 17. Subsequently the proposal was expanded to provide an exemption for denominational privilege throughout the country, through section 29 of the Charter.  This was due, in part, to the position of the government of Newfoundland that the Pentecostal Assemblies should become the eighth Christian denomination to receive constitutionally protected status.  This was achieved by a separate constitutional amendment in 1987.

Charter  Section 29

“Nothing in this Charter abrogates or derogates from any rights or privileges guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada in respect of denominational, separate or dissentient schools.”

Despite the Charter, religious discrimination infected the whole school system.  Teachers, school board trustees, and students were all accepted or denied on the basis of their religion.  But the discrimination was legal, protected or condoned by federal or provincial statutes:  The Schools Act, the Terms of Union, The Newfoundland Human Rights Code, and Section 29 of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  (Ontario’s Roman Catholic separate schools are protected/condoned by the similar/same four pieces of legislation.)

In the early 1980s a study was conducted by the Political Science Department of Memorial University for the local CBC television program On Camera.  It determined that 55.5% preferred a change to one system.


Much later, in 1990, a Royal Commission was appointed by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. The 509-page report, entitled Our Children, Our Future was released in March 1992 by the “Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Delivery of Programs and Services in Primary, Elementary, Secondary Education”.  It recommended the abolition of Newfoundland’s denominational school system.

With reference to the Constitutional guarantees placed in Newfoundland’s Terms of Union with Canada, the Commission reported that: “…it cannot accept that the wording or spirit of these rights and privileges, established decades ago, were intended to paralyse the system in perpetuity, and stifle the ability of the system to respond effectively to change.”

“Unless the natural process of change is to be artificially and unnaturally halted, the next step in our evolutionary development must come, and we must ensure that it is towards the creation of a comprehensive, unified and efficient administrative structure.”

“The education system here, or anywhere, that adequately prepares youth for the future, cannot be compromised by an insular view of the world.  We must construct bridges, not perpetuate social or intellectual isolation.”


Following the report of the Commission, then Premier Clyde Wells spent two and a half years in negotiation with the churches and finally proposed a slightly modified Term 17 for approval through a referendum.  The proposal suggested diminished control of the school system by the churches, but did not attempt to eliminate their influence.  In September of 1995, just 54 percent of voters supported the compromise formula put forward by the government.

After the modified constitutional clause was approved by the federal government in December of 1996, a revised school act was in the process of being implemented when a court case, launched by the Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches, resulted in an injunction on July 8, 1997 to stop the process.

In frustration, newly-elected Premier, Brian Tobin, himself a Roman Catholic, took over the government, and saw the court injunction as the last straw.  On July 31 he called a new referendum for September 2,1997 with the question:


“Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?”

With all votes counted, almost 73 percent agreed with the government initiative to end control of Newfoundland’s schools by churches, a control that had existed for more than 165 years.

Despite efforts by church leaders, the results suggested that a majority of Roman Catholics and Pentecostals sided with the government and voted Yes. Roman Catholics make up about 37% of Newfoundland’s population and Pentecostals about 7%.


Mr. Tobin called the vote a clear and strong mandate “to end the separation of our children” and the Newfoundland House of Assembly voted unanimously to approve a resolution to amend the Constitution.

A special Joint Commons – Senate Committee on the Amendment to Term 17 of the Terms of Union of Newfoundland was set up to hear submissions on both sides of the question before recommending adoption or rejection to both Houses of Parliament.

The Special Joint Committee recommended that the resolution to amend Term 17 be adopted by the Commons and Senate.

The vote in the Commons was a free vote with 212 for and 52 against.  The senate vote was 45 for and 26 against the amendment.

So, with the stroke of a pen, in early January, 1998, Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc proclaimed the constitutional amendment.  The province’s complex denominational system was to be replaced with a single public school system.

The text of the Newfoundland constitutional amendment reads:

17 (1) In lieu of section ninety-three of the Constitution Act, 1867, the section shall apply in respect of the Province of Newfoundland.

(2) In and for the Province of Newfoundland, the Legislature shall have exclusive authority to make laws in relation to education, but shall provide courses in religion that are not specific to a religious denomination.

(3) Religious observances shall be permitted in a school where requested by parents.

Brian Tobin told reporters: “Effective (the new school year) in September… there will be no Catholic schools, there will be no Pentecostal schools, there will be no integrated schools.  There will just be schools.  The same schools for all children, the same teachers for all children, the same curriculum for all children.”

The very same procedure of applying for a constitutional amendment could be done by Ontario.

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