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Bob Wakeham: Denominational education — the great divide

First as a vulnerable and naive student in the 1950s and early ‘60s, then as a curious journalist in the late ‘80s, and finally, ultimately and most importantly, as a voter in 1997: that’s how I recall my relationship with Newfoundland’s denominational system on the 20th anniversary this month of the long overdue vote by a majority of people in the province to scrap a divisive, archaic and expensive system that had fostered religious bigotry here for centuries.

Bob Wakeham

I was able to make choices on those last two encounters with religious education. But on the first, growing up in Gander, there was absolutely no talk of options, since I was part of a Catholic family, and my parents — scrupulous adherents to papal dogma (any diversion put them at risk of a one-way trip to perdition on a train with Lucifer himself at the throttle) — knew they had to dispatch their offspring to the local R.C. school.

Not that I had the maturity to question whether this was a good thing or not.  

Although, I did wonder at times why just about all of my friends were Catholic, and why my only real Protestant buddies, the “blacks” who attended the “amalgamated” school, were, for the most part, those who happened to live near us on Balbo Street.

It was religious segregation, pure and simple; a practice that belonged in the Dark Ages. 

And it taught us bigotry: “There were Catholics,” as the brilliant comedian George Carlin would point out in remembering his own upbringing, “and then there were the non-Catholics.”

The inference was obvious: we were better than those evil Protestants, and had an inside track on the race to heaven.

(I innocently insulted a teenage babysitter, an unfortunate Protestant, one evening as she helped me with my homework by declaring in evangelical style, or at least as much style as could be generated by a 12 year old, that the “Catholic Church is the one true Church.” That denunciation of her belief system has stayed in my memory bank forever, perhaps because she politely told me that “all Churches feel that way” — the first time I had ever heard that sort of “blasphemy.”)

Back then, I was also too young, too naive, to wonder why we were regularly paraded from the classroom to an intimidating and frightening dark room called “The Confessional” to rattle off our “sins”; we were obviously a real sinful lot in Grades 3 and 4, guilty of such despicable acts as not saying our “goodnight prayers.”

When we moved to the States from Newfoundland in the early ’60s, my parents left behind the system that allowed denominations to run their schools with public money, and were obligated to pay what I’m sure was a hefty sum to enrol us in Catholic schools — forced, I’m sure, by their own strict upbringing and brainwashing to keep us, at least initially, in classrooms run by religious orders.

Ironically, the single member of the Wakeham offspring to adhere to Catholicism into adulthood and parenthood was the only one of us to attend public schools throughout her entire education, never to have seen the inside of a Catholic school, a telling and significant fact; she actually had a chance to think for herself.

The next time I dealt directly with the whole denominational education issue was in the late ’80s when, as producer of the CBC current affairs program “On Camera,” I — along with host Bill Gillespie — decided we would commission a poll on how Newfoundlanders felt about the public funding of religious schools.

For years, politicians in Newfoundland had operated with a yellow streak a mile long, frightened to political death to even broach the notion that a public school system be put in place, religious leaders continuing to play an inordinately and obscenely influential role in the legislative affairs of the province.

However, there was a change in the wind, and we decided a poll would be appropriate. (It wasn’t easy to pull off, given the fact that news agencies and pollsters weren’t connected back then as they are now, but some vociferous back-and-forth between me and the powers that be in Toronto, and the co-operation and support of local CBC management, finally gave “On Camera” the OK to proceed).

The poll showed that a majority of Newfoundlanders wanted to ditch denominational education, that they were willing to force religions to relinquish their expensive and bigotry-laden, segregation-laden stranglehold on education.

And I’m sure most teachers, in particular, were eager to have the infamous “morals clause” disappear, an incredible and sickening violation of basic human rights that allowed religious school boards to fire teachers if, for instance, they married a divorced man or woman or were living common-law.

I don’t know if that “On Camera” program had any influence on the politicians of the day — immodesty and ego lead me to believe it did — but the bottom line was that 20 years ago this month, Brian Tobin, Roger Grimes and company brought about the referendum on denominational education.

And I had an official, formal opportunity to have my say in the ballot box, along with thousands of other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Wanna guess how I voted?


Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at

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