Decision overturned in funding appeal for non-Catholic students in Saskatchewan

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Decision overturned in funding appeal for non-Catholic students in Saskatchewan
WATCH ABOVE: Saskatchewan's Court of Appeal overturned a ruling that said funding non-Catholic students in Catholic schools is unconstitutional – Mar 25, 2020

Judges have ruled unanimously in favour of the Saskatchewan government in its appeal of a decision to no longer fund non-Catholic students who attend Catholic schools in the province.

The ruling from the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal was released on Wednesday. In its 133-page decision, the panel stated the case was not about the constitutionality of funding non-Catholics in Catholic schools.

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“To define the case so narrowly overstates what is at stake and understates the interconnectivity of the constitutional protection afforded to separate schools and the legislative scheme at play,” the decision reads.

Tom Fortosky, executive director of the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association, said the organization is “relieved and grateful.”

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“We’re grateful for those parents and guardians who have been entrusting their children to our schools in spite of this uncertainty,” Fortosky said.

Good Spirit School Division versus Christ the Teacher Catholic Separate School Division and the province put forth their case to a five-judge panel in March 2019.

The dispute started in 2003 when the Yorkdale School Division, now Good Spirit School Division, closed its kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school in the town of Theodore because of declining enrolment. The division planned to bus its 42 students to a nearby community.

Community members created their own Catholic school division and opened St. Theodore Roman Catholic School.

Click to play video: 'Canadians divided over full funding for Catholic schools'
Canadians divided over full funding for Catholic schools

As a result, Good Spirit argued, its neighbouring school in Springside lost out on potential funding, and the creation of a new Catholic school compromised Good Spirit’s ability to close future schools in a similar situation.

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That prompted Good Spirit School Division to launch the original 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.

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In 2017, Justice Donald Layh decided the issue at hand was the provincial policy of funding separate schools based solely on student enrolment without regard to students’ religion. It meant the province wouldn’t be able to fund non-Catholic students in separate schools.

The province had until June 2018 to follow the ruling, but instead, they appealed and continued to pay for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic school.

Norm Dray, executive director of the Public Schools of Saskatchewan, said the appellate court’s decision is disappointing.

Currently, he said the public and separate school systems compete for funding when they shouldn’t have to.

“If they can take any student they want and be government-funded, then that takes money away from the inclusive, public system,” Dray said, adding Catholic schools can turn students away if a child’s values aren’t consistent with Catholicism.

The case could now go to the Supreme Court of Canada. Dray said public school officials will review the decision, before speaking with lawyers and membership to determine future plans.

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In a statement, Saskatchewan Education Minister Gord Wyant said the province is pleased with the decision and is considering its options as well.

He noted the government has passed legislation allowing for the use of the notwithstanding clause, which could overrule a court’s ruling.

“We will continue to keep this legislation as an option,” Wyant said.

Catholic education is only publicly funded in three provinces: Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario.

— With files from Allison Bamford and Sarah Komadina

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