Thursday, December 13, 2012

Of oaths and anthems

Long story here. Just a little rambling, kind of stream of consciousness. If it’s not your cuppa, I’ll understand. :)

The Globe and Mail ran an article the other day on how irreligiosityis growing fast in the world, and may account for a third of humanity at this point. I sent this to a friend who is emerging from Catholicism to agnostic atheism. Part of the story mentioned that Canada had been criticized for publicly funding religious education in some provinces, including ours, Ontario, and my friend took issue with this.

Ontario has a publicly-funded Catholic school system, alongside the general public school system. So, I’m informed, do Alberta and Saskatchewan.  From what I understand, this comes down to the arrangements a province has when it enters Confederation. For example, the province I was born in and lived in for the first half of my education, Nova Scotia, decided it couldn’t afford more than one public school system when it established one, and so didn’t establish denominational schools. And since that was the arrangement it had when it joined Canada in 1867, that’s the system in place when I started school. My parents are Catholic (lapsed), but as there was no separate school system in Nova Scotia, I never attended Catholic school. By the time we moved to Ontario, I was half way through my education, and there was no point hopping onto the other system.

Ontario, being right next to Quebec, and having a large Catholic population, established a general Protestant school system, and a Catholic school system (so did Quebec; it was kind of a constitutional quid pro quo deal). The Protestant school system eventually just evolved into the non-denominational public school system. The Catholic system remains. My friend, who came up in that system, doesn’t understand the fuss. He considers it a dog-in-the-manger position to try to disestablish the Catholic school system, rather than that other people might justly wonder why their taxes don’t buy them a parallel educational system... why, constitutionally, some animals are more equal than others. The Supreme Court has made similar noises, but since these systems are constitutionally entrenched, and Constitution can’t contradict, or overrule, the Constitution, the courts can’t overturn them.

I’m in favour of abolishing the separate school system. Some people have suggested, instead, that we really should let people funnel their taxes into their own religious schools. To me, this is the beginning of the death of a common identity. We live in a multicultural nation now. It’s not 1867 anymore, it’s 2012. Setting up separate schools by religion wherever numbers warrant it is a recipe for ethnic and religious auto-apartheid and balkanization. Jews will congregate in one set of towns. Muslims in another. Baptists here, Methodists there. Soon, there’ll be towns you can’t move to because there won’t be schools for your kids. Eventually, that will come to mean towns where “your kind” simply aren’t really welcome to settle. Kids will grow up never having to deal with anyone who doesn’t look, act, sound, and think just like them, and the bigger world of Canadian life will come as a shock them when they encounter it. No, that’s not the future I want for this province or this country. Most Ontarians don’t: when John Tory floated the idea during the 2007 provincial election, it was so badly received he had to back off of it, and his otherwise promising start never recovered.

I think most Ontarians are ready to scrap the Catholic school system. By means of one-off constitutional amendments, Newfoundland did in 1997, and Quebec did in 1999.

All this got me thinking of religiosity in the schools in my lifetime. As a kid in Nova Scotia, my schools weren’t officially religious. Nevertheless, opening exercises included the Lord’s Prayer, and we had Christmas pageants every year. I lived in the Halifax area, which by the 1970s had a population around a quarter of a million, and so by the time I started school, we had already entered a period in our history in which a fair number of the kids I was spending my days with weren’t European and weren’t Christian. In particular, Indians (from India, not Natives) had begun to join us, and Vietnamese “boat people” were being settled across the country by the federal government. Even then, every class had two or three kids whose culture was different from what was being trotted out on those stages. No one forced them to participate, but it seems to me they all did. I suppose their parents took it with a grain of salt... it was a way for their kids to fit in, and to see their kids up on stage, tripping over things and singing badly like the rest of us. Still, now, it makes me uncomfortable to think of the presumptions we were making.

I’m not a parent, so I don’t know, but I’m persuaded we don’t have Christmas pageants anymore. The constitutionality of enforced prayer in Canadian public schools was tested after I graduated high school (it isn’t), but it was de rigeur for me for 14 years. This caused me a unique problem later in life, as it turns out. The public school system in Ontario evolved from the Protestant school system, and so the version of the Lord’s Prayer I learned and recited several thousand times was the Protestant version. The Catholic version is identical in every respect except that it ends, “...but deliver us from evil. Amen”. Nothing about kingdoms, power, or glory. So when I started attending Mass in my 30s, I had to make a conscious effort every time we recited the prayer to remember to stop. And frankly, I never liked it, because sometimes I’d forget and be saying “for thine is the kingdom” when everyone else was saying “Amen”, and because to me, the prayer ain’t over yet! We still have the thineing and the powering and the glorying and the forever and evering to do!

So to continue my ramble... I also thought about the other aspects of opening exercises when I was a kid. O Canada became the official national anthem in 1980, I believe. When it did, the words of the English version were slightly and subtly changed (the French words, which came first, are completely different and have nothing to do with the English ones; no one messed with them). The version I sang for the first seven years of school had a lot more standing on guard. Good Lord, did we do a lot of “standing on guard for thee” in the old version. It must have made up about half the song. Some changes that made subtle implications about the country were added. “And stand on guard, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee” became “From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee”. Now, that might mean from across this very large country, but “from far and wide” to me much more strongly evokes the influx of immigration over the past few hundred years, and especially lately (which takes some of the sting out of “our home and native land” earlier in the anthem for newcomers). “O Canada, glorious and free” became “God keep our land glorious and free”. Obviously I’m a little less unreservedly thumbs-up about that one, but I guess it’s innocuous enough, and it takes one of the “O Canadas” (of which there are still too many, as well) out of the anthem. Actually, no, it just transfers it to kick another one of those “standing on guards” out of the song a bit later. I did notice that when Burton Cummings sang the national anthem in the opening ceremonies of the Grey Cup last month, he slipped up and sang the old lyrics at one point (if I remember correctly, he sang “O Canada” instead of “God keep our land”).

The other one I thought of was a citizenship oath we recited at a school I went to for two years. It’s never been official, and I’ve heard slightly different versions of it over the years. Nevertheless, after 30 years, I can still recite it instantly from memory:

I promise that I will be loyal to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, and to Canada; that I will honour the flag, observe the laws of my country, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen; God being my helper.

I wonder if they’re still saying that in my old school. Heartwarming as I tend to find such sentiments, I also wonder about the constitutionality of an enforced oath, particularly on kids who might not happen to be Canadian citizens.

1 comment:

Bridgewater said...

Articulate, thoughtful essays are just my cuppa.

I agree with you absolutely that the public school system should be *the* system, the one in which everyone invests for the common weal. The reality is that we cannot--should not--insulate our children from our rapidly changing world, but social cohesiveness is a valuable commodity in this newer reality, and if countries are to maintain their integrity in the presence of diverse interest groups and cultural differences, there have to be common understandings. Those who want to shield their children from the rest of the world, or to indoctrinate them with ideologies that isolate, insulate, divide, or exclude, should be allowed to do so, but not at taxpayer expense. No vouchers, no subsidies, no tax exemptions, and alternative schools should at least meet the same educational goals and requirements, a well-educated populace being essential to a civilized nation.
As to oaths, I remember reciting the US Pledge of Allegiance before the McCarthy Commie paranoia inserted the phrase "under God." As a little kid, I didn't understand the political significance of the change, and I don't recall either enthusiasm or umbrage from my parents, but in those days bland mainstream denominations predominated in the North, most families did go to church at least for the big days, and church was a part of the social fabric, but it was more a background assumption for us and not at the forefront of our lives. In any event, that phrase did not make believers of any of us, and I resent the attempts of the creationists to foist their hokey beliefs on the country as the law of the land. I'm with Sinclair Lewis: fascism will come wrapped in a flag and carrying a Bible.