Education Reform in Newfoundland and Labrador

Brief submitted on behalf of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador by
Roger Grimes, Minister of Education
Special Joint Committee to Amend Term 17 of the Terms of Union of Newfoundland with Canada
Ottawa - November 18, 1997


The Path to Reform and the Need to Amend Term 17

1. The Original Term 17
2. Amendment of Term 17, 1996 - 97

3. The Need for Amendment of Term 17
4. The Proposed New Term 17

The Effects of Reform on Minority Rights

1. Classes Having Rights under the Current Term 17
2. Classes Having No Rights under the Current Term 17
3. Accommodation for Those Who Prefer Not to Avail of Religious Education or Observances

How Will These Changes Affect Rights in Other Provinces?

1. The Relationship Between Term 17 and Section 93
2. The Constitution as a Living Document

The Role of Religious Education and Religious Observances


The Path to Reform and the Need to Amend Term 17

The education system in Newfoundland and Labrador is unlike that of any other province. To fully appreciate the need for reform, it is necessary to understand the structure of the system as it was before the most recent amendment to Term 17 and as it is now.

1. The Original Term 17

a. The Roots of the Denominational School System

The original Term 17, enacted in 1949, guaranteed a system of education based on religious denomination. Publicly funded schools were operated by several denominations. There was no non-denominational public school system similar to the systems in the other Canadian provinces.

In 1969, four of the denominations, Anglican, Presbyterian, Salvation Army and United Church, joined forces to establish one "integrated" system of schools, operated on behalf of these denominations. A subsequent constitutional amendment, in 1987, added the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland as a class with denominational education rights under the Term.

As of 1987, there were four separate denominational school systems. They were operated by the Integrated, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist classes. Under this arrangement there were 27 denominational school boards which operated approximately 550 schools to provide an education program for about 140,000 students. There was no non-denominational system. These denominations made decisions with respect to the appointment of school board members, the location of schools, the certification and the selection of teachers and all other decisions required for the administration of education.

b. Williams Royal Commission

In 1990, the Williams Royal Commission, was appointed to study the delivery of programs and services in primary, elementary and secondary schools in the Province. After extensive public consultation, the Commission, reporting in March 1992, concluded that the Province's education system should be fundamentally and substantially reformed. A number of the recommendations suggested significant changes to the powers exercised by the denominations with respect to the administration of schools. For nearly three years, government sought, unsuccessfully, to reach agreement with the denominations to restructure the school system.

2. Amendment of Term 17, 1996 - 97

On September 5, 1995, when it became apparent that agreement on proposed reforms could not be reached with the denominations, government sought the opinion of the people, in a referendum, to amend Term 17. By a majority of 55%, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, voted to accept a new model for education, one that would retain the denominational character of the current system, but which would provide the provincial legislature with additional powers to organize and administer education in the Province.

In October, 1995, the provincial legislature passed a resolution to amend Term 17, adopting the model that had been presented during the referendum. In December 1996, the final resolution necessary to amend the Term was passed by Parliament in accordance with section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The amendment was proclaimed April 21, 1997.

Under the amended Term, which is currently in force, all publicly funded schools are "denominational schools." Rights under the Term are restricted to the classes that held rights at the time of Union together with the Pentecostal class.

The Term provides for two types of schools:

i. Schools operated for children of all denominations (called interdenominational), and

ii. Schools operated for children of a single denomination (called uni-denominational).

In uni-denominational schools, the denomination has authority over the provision of religious education, activities and observances, as well as the right to direct the teaching of aspects of the curriculum affecting religious beliefs, student admission policy and the assignment and dismissal of teachers for that school. In interdenominational schools, each denomination has the right to provide for religious education, activities and observances for the children of that particular class in the school.

In addition, the Term provides for election of school boards on a denominational basis. The classes having rights under the Term can require that two thirds of the school trustees be elected by denomination. Because the number of trustees of each denomination for each district depends on the population of the denomination in that district, each district has a unique composition of trustees. (See Appendix A.)

Unfortunately, this Term has proven to be unworkable. A fundamental difficulty has resulted from the denominational composition of the boards. In many cases, the boards have been unable to reach a consensus regarding the organization of schools. Ultimately, decisions made by boards regarding the closure and consolidation of schools resulted in legal action being brought by the Pentecostal and Roman Catholic denominations. The Court granted an injunction prohibiting school boards from closing Pentecostal or Roman Catholic schools without the consent of the denominations. This action effectively removed the school boards' authority to organize and consolidate the school system, and placed it in the hands of people who are accountable only to the denominations. In his decision, Mr. Justice Leo Barry of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland stated: "We've accepted a less than optimal standard of education by opting to preserve at least some of the denominational system of education. This statement is made not as a criticism but as a matter of fact."

The organization of high schools in the communities of Lewisporte and Bell Island provide helpful examples. In Lewisporte students attend one of 2 schools, Integrated or Pentecostal. On Bell Island, students attend an Integrated or a Roman Catholic school. Last spring, the school boards decided to operate one high school in each of these communities. All the high school students would attend the same school and have access to a wider variety of courses and a more enriched program than is available in the 2 smaller schools and all the students could be accommodated in one of the existing buildings. However, the plan could not be implemented because the Church leaders would not consent to the reorganization.

Another problem has been unnecessary busing of students. For example, Roman Catholic students in Carbonear travel to Harbour Grace to attend school. Along the way their bus passes another bus traveling in the opposite direction carrying the Integrated students from Harbour Grace to school in Carbonear. It would make much more sense for these two groups of students to attend school in their own communities. Similar circumstances are repeated in many communities throughout this Province.

3. The Need for Amendment of Term 17

Based on the events since 1992, government concluded that it was not possible to maintain its commitment to achieve the education reform necessary to shape our future if that reform continues to be tied to a denominational system that shaped our past. During the last five years every effort that government has made to reconcile education reform with denominational rights has ended in confusion and conflict.

As a result, government determined that the proper course of action was to offer a new alternative, and to seek the view of the people of the Province regarding that option.

4. The Proposed New Term 17

On July 31, 1997 Premier Brian Tobin announced that a provincial referendum would be held on September 2, 1997 and the people would be asked the following 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?

On August 25, 1997, the wording of the proposed new Term 17 was released for consideration by the public:

17. (1) In lieu of section ninety-three of the Constitution Act, 1867, this term 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 for courses in religion that are not specific to a religious denomination.

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

The result of the referendum was resounding support for the proposed new Term, with 73% answering the question, "Yes". An analysis of the results of the referendum clearly indicates that people of all religious persuasions supported this proposal. In only one of 48 districts was there a majority "No" vote (Placentia & St. Mary's: 43.8% voted "yes", 56.2% voted "no"). In all other parts of the Province, including where the majority of people are Roman Catholic, the majority voted "yes".

On September 5, 1997 the House of Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to amend Term 17 to permit the establishment of the school system that was so strongly endorsed by the people in the referendum.


The Effects of Reform on Minority Rights

1. Classes Having Rights under the Current Term 17

The results of the September 2, 1997 referendum indicate that a large majority of the people in the Province, including the majority of Roman Catholics, agree with the replacement of Term 17 with the new Term. The numbers of "yes" votes across the Province are indicative of the strength of endorsement by the voters.

  Yes No Total
Votes 149,315 56,020 205,705
Percentage 72.7% 27.3% 100%

There were 370 rejected ballots.

The leaders of the Churches in Integration have supported the change to Term 17. In addition, the referendum results support the conclusion that the majority of Roman Catholics also voted "yes". A majority of voters in all but one of forty-eight districts voted "yes" in the referendum. (See Appendix B) Of the forty-seven districts that voted "yes", several have a majority of Roman Catholics. Since it can be assumed that those opposed to the amendment would have been most likely to vote, the results strongly suggest that the majority of Roman Catholics endorsed the new Term. It should also be noted that the provincial electoral districts with the highest concentration of Pentecostals, voted "yes".

In the one district where the majority voted "no", the difference was not substantial, with 56.2% voting "no" and 43.8% voting "yes" (Placentia & St. Mary's). Further, the result in Placentia & St. Mary's may be contrasted with the results in the 1995 referendum when the vote in Placentia was 70.9% "no" and 28.9% "yes", and the vote in St. Mary's-The Capes was 80.4% "no" and 19.4% "yes". This significant difference in results demonstrates a substantial shift in attitude over the past 2 years.

Despite the results of the referendum, the Roman Catholic bishops have launched a court challenge to the amendment of the Term. However, it should be noted that the Pentecostal Assemblies have not taken a similar action. The inference follows that the members of the Pentecostal Assemblies are satisfied that the referendum results should be respected, and that reform should proceed.

2. Classes Having No Rights under the Current Term 17

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the majority of people of this Province are anxious to build an education system that is fair and equitable for each and every student. Currently, Term 17 extends rights only to certain denominational classes. The new Term 17 will include all classes.

The following chart which is based on the 1991 census figures illustrates the breakdown by denomination of the general population. Roman Catholics form the largest group, followed by the Anglican and United Churches.


Denominational Membership as a Percentage of the Total Provincial Population
Denomination Rights Holders Non Rights Holders
Roman Catholic 37.0%  
Anglican 26.2%
United Church 17.3%
Salvation Army 7.9%
Pentecostal 7.1%
Presbyterian 0.4%
Seventh-day Adventist 0.1%
Jehovah's Witness   0.4%
Moravian 0.4%
Baptist 0.2%
Other Religions 1.3%
No Religious Affiliation 1.6%


It is clear that many minorities have no denominational rights in education in our Province. It is equally clear that for the Roman Catholic community to argue that it is a religious minority is specious. The proposed amendment will enable government to create a school system where all are treated equally, where each and every person in the Province will be able to participate equally in the governance of education, and where all parents will be able to exercise the right to access religious education and religious observances for their children.

We do not believe segregation by religion is an appropriate way to promote tolerance and understanding of minority groups in today's society. In today's society we do not hire or fire workers on the basis of religion, elect politicians on the basis of religion, or appoint judges on the basis of religion. Segregation on the basis of religion does not exist in any other part of our society. We believe children should have the opportunity to play together and learn together to prepare them as adults to live and work together.

3. Accommodation for Those Who Prefer Not to Avail of Religious Education or Observances

Under the new Term 17, parents will be able to choose whether their children will participate in religious education courses and religious observances. This will ensure freedom of religion for all. The Term says that the legislature "shall provide for courses in religion". The onus is on the legislature to ensure that such courses are available. However, the Term does not preclude parents from withdrawing their children from participation in those courses. Similarly, the right to religious observances depends on parental request. Those parents who do not wish their children to participate in religious observances will be free to make that choice.

How Will These Changes Affect Rights in Other Provinces?

Those who are of the opinion that the proposed amendment to Term 17 will affect denominational education rights in other provinces, usually refer to language in section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 which specifies that provincial legislation regarding education cannot prejudicially affect a right or privilege with respect to denominational schools held by a class of persons at the time of Union. In order to explain the Province's position it is helpful to focus on two main themes: the situation across the country as it was and as it currently exists, and the fundamental Rule of Law that the Constitution of Canada is a living document which is open to amendment in accordance with the Constitution Act, 1982.

1. The Relationship Between Term 17 and Section 93

Section 93 specifies that provincial legislation regarding education cannot prejudicially affect a right or privilege with respect to denominational schools held by a class of persons at the time of Union. When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation in 1949, a special provision, Term 17, tailored to the circumstances in this Province, was enacted in place of section 93. That Term did not provide protections for the Roman Catholic or Protestant minority as was the case in other provinces. Instead, Term 17 guaranteed a system of education, publicly funded, but governed and operated by seven specific denominations. There has never been a public school system in this Province as there is in all other provinces. It is important to keep these differences in mind when applying the general statement, coming out of section 93, that rights with respect to denominational schools held at the time of Union cannot be prejudicially affected. The rights protected in Newfoundland and Labrador are fundamentally different and not comparable to the rights that were guaranteed in other provinces. Consequently, a statement regarding rights that applies generally to other provinces cannot fairly be applied to Newfoundland and Labrador.

In addition, it is helpful to review the situation across the country:

i. Based on section 93, Ontario and Quebec have constitutionally guaranteed rights with respect to denominational (Roman Catholic and Protestant) schools.

ii. Section 93 also applies to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. None of these provinces actually exercises rights with respect to denominational schools since they had no such rights when they joined Confederation. In other words, they had no denominational schools, and hence no rights that could be prejudicially affected.

iii. In Manitoba, where Term 22 replaced section 93, in the 1890's, as a result of judicial decisions and legislative action, tax supported separate schools were eliminated.

Term 17, applicable in Newfoundland and Labrador, was amended in 1996 -97. That amendment removed language that defined rights in terms of prejudicially affecting rights held by certain denominations at a particular point in time. Instead, the denominational education rights that were to be constitutionally guaranteed were specified in the Term. Unfortunately, the compromise inherent in that amendment has proven unworkable. It has resulted in chaos, confusion and tension to the detriment of the students, parents and teachers of this Province. Accordingly, the Province is seeking to replace the current Term 17 with a new Term that will provide for a single school system in which all children will attend the same schools, but where opportunities will be provided for religious education classes and religious observances. The people of the Province soundly endorsed this move in the Referendum held on September 2, 1997.

The prohibition against prejudicially affecting denominational education rights held by any class of persons at the time of Union never applied in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Prince Edward Island, and ceased to apply in Newfoundland and Labrador on April 21, 1997. In Manitoba, the right to tax supported denominational schools was eliminated in the last century. Quebec is currently seeking a change to the application of section 93 to that Province. Only Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario are satisfied to retain the status quo. It is open to them, under the Constitution, to do so.

2. The Constitution as a Living Document

The Rule of Law includes a recognition that the Constitution is a living document, a document which accommodates change, rather than locking society into a situation that existed decades ago.

For example, if Newfoundland and Labrador was held to the standard of not prejudicially affecting a right with respect to denominational schools held at the time of Union, the Province would be constitutionally required to provide in perpetuity for publicly funded denominational schools for as many as eight specific denominations outside of a "public" school system. Until the most recent amendment of the Term, there were four separate denominational systems.

Similarly, if other provinces were to be held to the standard of not prejudicially affecting a right with respect to denominational schools held at the time of Union, it would be impossible to move forward and accommodate changing times. The Constitution itself recognizes the absurdity of such a result, and provides for an amending formula to permit growth and change in the Constitution. To lock a constitutional provision in time cannot be right in principle or in law.


The Role of Religious Education and Religious Observances

The government believes that religious education courses contribute significantly to the development of moral values and ethical conduct and that religion programs and religious observances contribute to the overall development of the child. The religious education program provided in accordance with Term 17 will not be directed to a particular denomination. Rather, it will be designed to help students:

  • understand the interdependence of oneself, society, and all of creation, with God;
  • understand revelation through God's creation, God's Word, and human history as key elements in religious traditions;
  • understand the faith and convictions within world religions; and
  • gain a respect for minority communities.

A framework for the K-12 religious education program will be developed by a team of curriculum specialists and teachers. Stakeholders, including representatives of various denominations will be consulted. Following the completion of the framework, working groups consisting of teachers and curriculum specialists will prepare detailed curricula, in both official languages, for each grade level.

While not guaranteed under the proposed new Term, there is provision for locally developed religious education courses under the Department of Education's current local course policy. Where the school board determines that such a local course would be desirable, there can be locally developed, denominationally specific religious education courses offered in a school.

As a result, there are two ways in which parents can have their children receive specific religious instruction in their faith: through local churches, or through local courses offered at the school.

Finally, as noted above, the parents will have the choice as to whether their children will participate in the religion courses that are offered as part of the curriculum, and whether they will attend particular religious observances that are made available in the schools.



For the last five years, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has attempted to reform the organization and administration of schools in order to provide a modern school system which will prepare our children for the 21st century. For the last five years we have faced frustration at every turn. We no longer want teachers hired or fired on the basis of religion. We no longer want school board members elected on the basis of religion. It's time to allow all of our children, of every denomination, to sit in the same classroom, in the same schools, to ride the same bus, to play on the same sports teams, to "live" and "learn" together in the same community. We want to create such a school system where all of our children learn together and where opportunities are provided to all denominations for religious education and observances.

Education reform in Newfoundland and Labrador must be allowed to proceed. It is imperative that in these times of rapidly declining student enrollments and increasingly scarce resources, the current complex denominationally based system be fundamentally redesigned for educational excellence and fiscal responsibility. The children of the Province deserve no less.






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