The first item on Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory’s election campaign agenda for Wednesday, September 5 is to tour the Kamin Education Centre, a private Jewish school in Thornhill, Ontario. This morning, the aptly named Leader of the Opposition is here to discuss his plan to fund private religious schools and bring them into the public school system — just as Catholic schools in Ontario have been since former Ontario premier William Davis increased funding to 100 per cent back in 1984. There isn’t a better venue for Tory to showcase his plan — it’s located in a suburban riding inhabited by affluent families, many of them Jewish. The school association that Kamin belongs to has existed for a century and is funded entirely by student tuition fees.

As Tory tours the school, he makes comments to match his party’s platform, which had been updated and issued this past June in advance of the election. He speaks about “an honest, open approach that looks for solutions to a problem” and emphasizes “inclusion and fairness.” Tory’s wife, Barbara Hackett, and Peter Shurman, PC candidate for the riding of Thornhill, are with him as he visits a Grade 4 class. He even helps out little Jennie Martow with her math. The convoy, consisting of a dozen or so journalists and PC staffers, then makes its way to the library, where Tory will make a statement and answer questions from the press.

Public funding for religious private schools is a seemingly innocuous item that occupies exactly one half-page out of 52 in the PC platform. The campaign pledge says private faith-based schools will be given the opportunity to join the public fold, receiving a total of $400 million in overall provincial funding. But two weeks before Tory’s Kamin visit, Premier Dalton McGuinty spoke out against publicly funded faith-based schools, calling them “segregationist.” A spokesperson for the governing Ontario Liberal Party said, “Premier McGuinty opposes the Conservatives’ plan to take money out of public schools and put it into private religious schools.” Up until 2001, two years before he was elected premier, McGuinty had supported the idea of providing at least some tax-credit relief for religious schools.

In retaliation, McGuinty is being depicted in PC campaign ads as a promise-breaker. But he has made faith-based school funding a bigger issue, and a direct response is necessary. Tory attempts to separate himself from the premier by confronting the funding issue at the press conference in the school library. The questions and answers seem ordinary enough until CBC’s Mike Wise asks, “Would a Christian-based school be able to teach creationism?”

“The Christian-based school would have to teach the Ontario curriculum, which, of course, has a different explanation,” Tory responds. “You know, it’s still called the theory of evolution, but they teach evolution in the Ontario curriculum. But they also could teach the fact to the children that there are other theories that people have out there that are part of some Christian beliefs.”

All ears suddenly perk up. Tory continues, providing this caveat: these schools would still have to follow the Ontario curriculum to receive funding. As Richard Brennan of the Toronto Star later puts it, “Everyone knew immediately it was a good quote.” Not wanting to press the issue in case Tory backtracks on his comment, no one follows up on the newsworthy soundbite, and reporters leave thinking they’ve got fresh meat.

Afterward, as Tory rushes off to Lieutenant-Governor David Onley’s swearing-in ceremony at Queen’s Park, Canadian Press reporter Chinta Puxley files her story for the wire service. The piece, which will soon reach most other news organizations, leads with: “There is no reason creationism could not be taught in addition to evolution and ‘other theories’ if private religious schools are brought into Ontario public school boards, Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said Wednesday.”

Further down in the story, Puxley cites St. Jerome’s University religious studies professor David Seljak, whose point of view, in Puxley’s words, is that “the teaching of creationism alongside evolution hasn’t been detrimental to students who are steeped in private, religious education.”

Other reporters choose to use “alongside” rather than “in addition to.” This word choice causes consternation among PCs, but the paraphrasing of Tory’s comments does reflect the ambiguity in his initial statement.Did he mean that creationism would be taught in science classes, just as evolution currently is? Evolution is a scientifically accepted theory, while creationism is, to many, simply Biblical myth.

John Tory

John Tory’s comments on creationism in schools sparked media debate
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The Globe and Mail’s Caroline Alphonso amalgamates Puxley’s story with her own information, and by early afternoon the story is on talk radio shows across Ontario. In bringing religion into the election campaign, Tory hits a hot button. Murray Campbell, the Globe’s Queen’s Park columnist, says Tory has done this before. “He’s a bit of a motormouth — he talks fast and continuously,” Campbell says. “I would not suggest his mouth gets ahead of his brain, but he does talk a lot and there are times when his words are not precise enough.”

When Tory speaks to reporters at 3 p.m., after Onley’s ceremony, he tries to clear up the confusion. He says he doesn’t want creationism to supplant or supplement evolution in the science curriculum. By 4 p.m., updated versions go up on several news sites. A revision is made, with “in addition to” replacing “alongside.”

At 4:48 p.m., five hours after the first news reports, the Ontario PC party emails a statement of clarification to journalists, pointing out that the Ontario curriculum does not allow for religious theories to be taught in science classes. “Everyone does a bit of bumper-sticker politics,” says John Barber, city columnist for theGlobe, “but Tory always seems to be explaining himself after he uses his bumper stickers.”

“To pay people to retreat into their own ghettoes is a dangerous thing to do in a multicultural city in the 21st century,” adds Barber. “Tory’s policy may not do that, but it doesn’t matter because it’s standing in as the warning sign, and it’s an opportunity for people to express this view.”

Dennis Duffy, who teaches an interdisciplinary program for first-year students at the University of Toronto called VIC ONE, is blunt about Tory’s misfortune. “Anybody who is in public life knows that when you’re talking to a journalist, it can and will be reported,” he says. “If John Tory doesn’t know that, he doesn’t belong in politics.”

John Tory’s comments on creationism in schools sparked media debate.

The Tories eschew traditional damage control, opting instead to emphasize that their leader is a man of principle. Convenient, since Tory’s slogan is “Leadership Matters.” He tells reporters later in the day that “people will respect the fact that  I’m being open and honest with them, that I’m putting forward a proposal for dealing with an issue that’s been around for decades — and I’m prepared to talk about it without fear-mongering.”

Commentators aren’t convinced this will be the crucial ballot box issue. Despite an opinion poll published September 18, which finds that 71 per cent of Ontarians are opposed to religious school funding, Tory’s popularity takes only a minor hit. In a poll for the week of September 5-8, voter preference dips to 33 per cent, down three per cent from the week before.

Meanwhile, the Liberals refrain from exploiting the gift Tory has handed them. Spokesperson Ben Chin won’t comment on how Tory’s comment has affected Liberal fortunes, saying, “If we just keep our head down, get out there, work as hard as we can, hopefully people agree with us.” But the party’s television ads say it all. McGuinty calls public funding for religious schools “a terrible mistake” and that integrated students “learning together” are “what makes Ontario, Ontario.”

Ontario PC spokesperson Ingrid Thompson calls the wildfire spread of Tory’s creationism quote the “lymphatic system.” In the human body, the lymphatic system is the backbone of the immune system. This nebulous network of lymph nodes circulates pathogens and antibodies alike, these tiny creatures transported by subtle pressure from the body’s muscular movements.

A few weeks later, on Sunday, September 30, the tempest blows again at an afternoon all-party debate at another educational institute. Leaside High School is located in the Toronto riding of Don Valley West, where Tory challenges the incumbent Liberal, education minister Kathleen Wynne. In the standing-room-only school auditorium, Wynne, as expected, criticizes Tory and his religious school policy, calling it “[an attack on] the social cohesion of the province.”

In response, Tory this time coolly rationalizes his policy by pointing out that it worked in five other provinces and territories, with no ill consequence, and it will work in Ontario. He is sure of a PC win, he vows. He is sure, too, that the creationism gaffe won’t dampen his popularity.

At 6:10 p.m. the same day, CTV News reports that Tory’s party might withdraw its proposal to fund religious schools. The unnamed sources say that the plan, if not entirely scrapped, will be deferred at least until the next year, to be implemented through the guidance of a commission or public hearing.

The latest Ipsos-Reid poll comes out on Saturday, September 29, one day before the leaders debate. It suggests the Liberals are on their way to a majority win.Tory’s quasi-creationism comments, says the pollster, are one reason why the PCs lag 10 points behind their rivals.

Two days later, Tory announces that he’ll put his proposed funding of faith-based schools to a free vote if elected premier.

The Liberals, it seems, will squeeze by with a little help from the mediaand from John Tory.