REGINA –Saskatchewan will look at all the options after a court ruling said the province can’t provide Catholic schools funding for students who aren’t Catholic, says Premier Brad Wall.
“This simply cannot stand,” Wall said Monday.
“Consider the implications here. If this has to be implemented by June of 2018, in that subsequent fall, you could have massively overpopulated public schools and empty or near empty separate schools. You actually risk the viability of community schools.”
Wall says parents could be forced to send their children to public schools an hour away from home, and that’s not acceptable for families.
“So we’re going to take an approach of what is best for the student, what’s best for family, and see what we can do to try to successfully manoeuvre around this court ruling.”
The court ruling released last week said provincial government funding of non-minority faith students attending separate schools infringes on religious neutrality and equality rights.
Justice Donald Layh’s ruling stems from a lawsuit over the province’s policy of funding separate schools based solely on student enrolment without regard to the religious affiliation of the students.
The dispute started in 2003 when the Yorkdale School Division,
now Good Spirit School Division, closed down its
kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school in the town of Theodore because of
declining enrolment. The division planned to bus its 42 students to
the community of Springside, 17 kilometres away.
In response, a local group created its own Catholic school division and opened St. Theodore Roman Catholic School.
That prompted Good Spirit School Division to launch a lawsuit claiming the creation of the new school division was not to serve Catholics in the community, but rather to prevent the students from being bused to a neighbouring town.
Layh’s ruling noted there is a growing number of non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools in the province.
The Saskatchewan government does not know how many non-Catholic students attend Catholic schools.
“Can you imagine the process of trying to determine that? That’s what’s very concerning about this,” said Wall.
“It isn’t in the interest of students in terms of the location of schools. It’s not in the interest of parents. And it causes one to ask these questions, well do we now go around and survey people and is it the government’s job then to confirm that they’ve gone through Catechism or they’ve been baptized?”
Wall says the decision could have national implications too.
Alberta and Ontario also fully fund Catholic school systems.
Dwight Newman, a professor who specializes in constitutional law at the University of Saskatchewan, says the ruling doesn’t apply to other provinces.
“It’s difficult to say if there’s an effect on other provinces underway or not, but the issue is one that extends beyond the province,” notes Newman.
“The judge in the decision said that he’s dealing with a dispute between one school division and another school division, but he acknowledged right up front that whatever decision he reached would apply to the province as a whole because there was no reason to distinguish one part of the province from another.
“In some ways, the issues here, the legal issues, wouldn’t be distinctive between one province and another.”
Newman says Saskatchewan has three options: appeal the ruling, apply to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, or ask for a constitutional amendment.
Wall says he’s asked Saskatchewan Justice Minister Gord Wyant and Education Minister Don Morgan to look possible constitutional options or legislative options in the Saskatchewan Education Act.
Morgan, who is also Saskatchewan’s former attorney general, says the province wants to consider its options quickly because parents and students are facing so much uncertainty.
That could include the nothwithstanding clause or a constitutional amendment from the federal government, he said.
“It’s something that over the next few days, I’d like to be able to have a plan forward so we can give some sense of comfort to the families that are affected,” said Morgan.