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Tuning Out Tory's Gospel


by Prithi Yelaja
28 September 2007


TORONTO - Prasad Gopinath believes John Tory is everything the next premier of Ontario should be: smart, capable and trustworthy.

But his plan to vote Conservative was derailed by Tory's stance on extending funding to all religious schools.

"It's a bloody stupid idea. When you segregate people along religious lines, it leads to ghettoization," said Gopinath, 49, a travel agency executive whose son attends a Mississauga public school.

"The beauty of the public school system is Hindu, Sikh, Jew, Christian children can learn and play together, which goes a long way toward developing understanding. "Religion has no place in schools. If I want to teach my son the Hindu religion, I should finance it from (my) own pocket and not expect my neighbours to do it."

Faith-based school funding has become a major issue in the provincial election. What may be surprising is the groundswell of opposition among those at whom it seems targeted: religious minorities and immigrants in the GTA.

Opposition to the plan goes beyond fears of xenophobia. Many believe it will undermine public schools.

"We don't have enough money to run our existing system. Every week, my son's school has a drive to raise money," said Gopinath.

Proponents of the idea may have misunderstood the immigrant psyche, said Akaash Maharaj, senior resident in politics at the University of Toronto's Massey College.

"Many immigrants have come to Canada precisely because their countries of origin were racked with sectarian strife, and faith-based schools are evocative of those memories. ... Immigrants to Canada actively chose this country because of our core values and it is therefore an error in logic to believe that such people can be appealed to other than through an appeal to Canadian values."

Tory's plan is entirely defensible, Maharaj said: Equity is a core Canadian value, whether it's accomplished by funding all faith-based schools or none.

"But Tory has been unable to champion that vision. Rather than the Liberals having to defend an asymmetrical treatment of different faith groups, Tory is having to defend his support of the public school system," Maharaj said.

"From a purely tactical perspective the worst fate that can befall any politician, much like any general in a war, is to be forced to fight a battle of his enemy's choosing. Tory has done precisely that. He has unwittingly led this campaign to a battleground of the Liberal party's choosing."

Some minority voters, like Toronto entrepreneur Azim Fancy, say they'll vote for Tory despite their disagreement.

"The system as we have it is patently unfair, and he's the first one to take a principled stand on it," said Fancy, 62, an Ismaili Muslim. "That speaks to his integrity and character. I think that's what you want to see in a leader even if you don't agree with him."

Still, he believes extending faith-based funding would be "disastrous."

"We came to this country to leave all that baggage behind," he said. "We don't want to recreate it here."

Tory's plan does appear to resonate broadly with the Jewish community, though most Jewish children are in public schools.

Rochelle Title's three children go to public school because she can't afford a Jewish school.

"For the Catholics to get funding is great, but so should all faiths," said Title, 47, an accounting clerk in Richmond Hill.

Steven Schulman, of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said there may not be unanimity on the subject, "but there's certainly very significant support."

"Throughout our history, we have taken positions for fairness, regardless of what polls may say or how popular or unpopular it might be," Schulman said. "What resonates in the community is that we have in Ontario in 2007 a very important public service that is provided to one faith group but not to others ... That's something that sticks out like a sore thumb."


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