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Letter: Reflections on the 1997 referendum

More than 20 years ago, on July 31, 1997, a referendum on denominational education was scheduled for Sept. 2 (then 32 days out.) It was announced around 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, giving the Tobin regime a one-week headstart in a four-week campaign.

By comparison, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association demanded a year’s notice of motion for bylaw changes and a two-thirds majority vote.

A drunk would get 90 days to vacate and, on appeal, might get another 90 days. Thirty-two days’ notice for religious groups who have served the province for three centuries is rather shabby. During July and August 1997, I was a volunteer co-ordinator for a national conference working 16-hour days and could not keep up with the Tobin blitz. The Tobin timetable is not suitable to amend the U.S. constitution — why is it acceptable here?

In debate, the Liberals suggested that the denominational system cost about $70 million per year. Now, $70 million per year for 50 years at five per cent is $14.654 billion — enough to pay off  Muskrat Falls. That is the good news. The bad news is $70 million is pure fiction — Goldilocks math. The actual cost is around $6 million, from the Royal Commission. This would be reduced substantially by school fees, church donations, church property used by schools and the volunteer factor (worth about $1 billion). It is likely that the savings are nil. If we agree that $1 million is saved, then that is less than $2 per capita per year. The president of Memorial University supported the Tobin regime without mention of its $300 million to $400 million subsidy per year. And $300 million per year for 50 years at five per cent is $62.804 billion — enough for five or six Muskrat Falls projects.

The Liberals suggested that we were backward, but failed to mention that the provincial contribution to education was half the national average. The rosy promises of referendum1995 had a shelf life less than two years — hardly fit for nation-building. The referendum question was a masterpiece of deception as was the first resolution in the Royal Commission. Tobin hired Bristol Communications to conduct four polls and four focus groups to fashion a Trojan Horse question for referendum day. Ironically, Tobin demanded that the referendum question in Quebec be transparent and clear.

The 1997 referendum question asked: “Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?” (No mention of the Constitution.) Our present education system, a legacy of the Tobin regime, is based on broken promises, hypocrisy (with minorities not subject to the referendum double knockout punch), misinformation, injustice and Goldilocks math. Ironically, 73 per cent of students were in communities with a single school system and Tobin got 73 per cent of the vote. On Sept. 5, 1997, there was a unanimous vote (48) in the House of Assembly and no one knew the cost. Then MP Norm Doyle (now a senator and former MHA) was the only elected N.L. politician to oppose Tobin. Thank you, Senator Doyle.

On Dec. 9, 1997 in the House of Commons: 212 (for) and 53 (against). On Dec. 18, 1997 in the Senate: 45 (for), 26 (against), 1 (abstaining) and 32 seats vacant. In 1949, we traded nationhood for the baby bonus ($5) — we could not have both. Old Age Security was $40. And, 50 years later, in 1999, we traded our constitutional rights in education for $2 per capita per year, and per capita share of Muskrat is $24,000.

Referendum 1997 did not allow scrutineers and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Students in independent schools are not entitled to free textbooks.  Before “Ultimatum 1997,” I/we were so proud of this place. We reflect.


Garry Bambrick
St. John’s

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