Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this debate to say a few words on a issue that is dear to my heart. By way of parading my credentials, I should inform the House that before coming here I was actively involved in education. I was a school principal and a school superintendent.
During the 1969 reorganization of education in the province which permitted the coming together of the integrated group, the Presbyterian, Salvation Army, Anglican and United, I was the president of the provincial teachers' organization and in that capacity I was actively involved in the negotiations which culminated in the 1969 Newfoundland schools act. Therefore, I have some familiarity with the issues which are at play here.
I should also tell the House that in the Newfoundland referendum last September I voted no. It is not that I am opposed to reform of the educational process, I voted no because I had some concerns about how the question was put. I felt that it ought to have been put to each of the seven classes which would be affected by the change so we would know whether each of the classes, by majority, had opted to give up their rights pursuant to Term 17. That was not done and that was my reason for voting no.
I am very supportive of the need for educational reform. I could tell the House many horror stories on the subject from personal, firsthand experience, which points to the urgency of what the Newfoundland government is trying to do in reforming the education system.
Quite apart from the current economic bind in which every government finds itself, even in earlier times we saw some horrendous wastes of money in the name of denominational education. There were cases in which if one denomination received money for school construction, a constitutional obligation required the government to give a proportionate amount to the other denominations, whether they had a need for it or not. Newfoundland, in particular, could not afford that kind of duplication of expenditures.
As I only have 10 minutes I want to stay as close as I can to the issue which we are debating today.
I have had much correspondence on this issue from people throughout the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I have heard the concerns of the many in Newfoundland who are opposed to the constitutional change. These concerns are based on the premise that the proposed change is a backward step, is a move away from a Christian education system. Those concerns, I believe, are honestly held. I not only respect them, I happen to be in complete sympathy with those concerns.
Unfortunately, those concerns have been fueled and reinforced by misinformation and rhetoric in the province that the provincial government's real agenda is the creation of a God-less, secularized school system. I do not share that view. A fair reading of the amendment before us today will show that the church's role in education will continue and will be constitutionally protected.
The issue here is who will run the schools. That is really the only issue in so far as Newfoundland is concerned. I respect that some of my colleagues have other concerns about minority rights, language rights and aboriginal rights, which are matters that the Minister of Justice has addressed. I will stay with the issue that I know best as it relates to Newfoundland.
I repeat that the issue, in my view, is who will run the schools. I thought the United Church of Newfoundland, one of the affected classes in so far as this amendment is concerned, put it very well a couple of weeks ago, on May 17, in a new release which read:
We have frequently and formally indicated our willingness to relinquish all administrative control of education in favour of a system in which the churches would retain solely the right to provide for religious education, activities and observances.
This is a statement from the United Church but I think it could be echoed by some of the other denominations involved in this endeavour. That statement puts it very well.
This exercise is not about secularizing the system. Indeed on reading the amendment it is very clear on that particular point that all seven churches will continue to have rights and will be able to exercise those rights. To that extent the amendment is once again enshrining and continuing the constitutional protection afforded those churches in 1949 when Newfoundland joined Canada.
The real issue is who will run the schools. I have always believed that when we are spending public money whether it be on education, health, road construction or whatever, there ought to be a system of direct accountability to the people who pay the bills. It is the people of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador who pay the education bills, not the churches. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador pay the bills.
I do not have to explain the system of accountability. We have the same system. We are part of the British parliamentary system as is Newfoundland. The system is simple: A group of people is elected; a government is formed; it brings in a budget and it has to get that budget sustained in the House of assembly of that province. Part of that budget is the education expenditure, how the money will be disbursed to improve the education in that province.
Given our tradition in this House, and in Newfoundland as well, it is absolutely axiomatic that the people who pay the piper should call the tune. The electors of the province ought to have the final say as to the disbursement of funds for education. That is what the amendment is all about. It takes the governance, the running of the schools, out of the hands of the churches as provided in the current term 17 prior to the proposed amendment. It takes the governance out of the hands of the churches and puts it into the hands of government. I believe that is where it belongs.
I made reference earlier that I could tell some horror stories on this issue. Most of them would have to do with that particular issue, that when it came down to a government wanting to exercise its judgment and accountability to the people on issues relating to education expenditure in Newfoundland, its hands were always tied because there was a constitutional provision which prevented it from doing that.
This amendment will do two things, both of which are positive. It will put the governance of Newfoundland schools into the hands of the elected which is where it belongs in the first place. I could go through a long history lesson going back to 1723 when the churches established the first schools and why it did not evolve that way. In the late 1880s when it was enshrined in legislation the die was cast. The evolution had been such that no politicians worth their salt would rush in and change what was a working system.
The system has not been working as well in recent times. I only have 10 minutes. If I had two or three hours I could spend a fair amount of it talking about the contribution the churches have made to education in Newfoundland. That is not what this debate is about. This issue does not have anything to do with railroading or denigrating the churches. That is not the issue.
I am a product of that system. The precursor of the integrated system in Newfoundland was the so-called amalgamated system. My elementary years were spent in the amalgamated system. My final year of high school was in the Salvation Army system. I taught and was a principal in a Salvation Army school. I was a principal in an amalgamated school and in a new integrated school. In terms of education and career, I am a product of that system. I could wax long and hard about the contribution the system has made.
That brings me to my second point. This amendment does two things. It puts the governance of the schools into the hands of the government, the people of the province, which is where it belongs. The other is it continues the church involvement, which has made such a marvellous contribution to education and the enshrinement and promotion of values in Newfoundland over two and one-half centuries.