A legal battle over Catholic schools in Saskatchewan appears to be over.
The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed a Saskatchewan public school board’s leave to appeal the Theodore school decision, which enshrines in law public funding for non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools.
The Feb. 25 decision confirms the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s unanimous decision last March that overturned a 2017 ruling by Justice Donald Layh that sought to limit the funding of non-Catholics in the Prairie province’s Catholic schools.
“We are relieved and reassured by this decision, and we believe it can be considered a victory for both religious and parental rights and freedoms,” said Tom Fortosky, executive director of the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association in a statement following the release of the Supreme Court decision.
“Even though the Government of Saskatchewan assured us they would do whatever is necessary to protect your choice for your child’s education, this decision definitively confirms what we have said and believed all along: parents know what is best for their children and they should be able to choose Catholic, faith-based education if that is what they want — no matter their reasons, faith backgrounds or traditions.”
The case could have national implications as Saskatchewan is one of only three provinces where Catholic education rights are enshrined in the constitution and fully funded, along with Alberta and Ontario. Manitoba and B.C. systems are partially funded.
The case has been before the courts since 2005 when the York School Division (now Good Spirit) first filed a complaint against what is now the Christ the Teacher School Division.
The complaint centred on the Catholic division establishing St. Theodore Roman Catholic School in the rural town of Theodore after the public division closed the school due to a lack of enrolment. Parents rallied to save the school to keep their children from being bused to Springside, 17 kilometres away.
The public division argued Catholics made up only a small proportion of the school population and that the mandate of Catholic schools should be limited to the education of Catholic students.
It wasn’t until 2015 that the case made its way to a Yorkton courtroom, and not until 2017 when Layh ruled in favour of the public board. The provincial government of then-premier Brad Wall quickly invoked the notwithstanding clause, which allowed the status quo to stand for five years.
“Our system has been in place in excess of 100 years,” said the Saskatchewan Party’s then-Minister of Education Don Morgan at the time.
“The choice option has been there and it’s worked well. We’ve built our infrastructure around that. We’ve built neighbourhoods around that type of school system. We would use the notwithstanding clause on an ongoing basis to ensure that those choices remained.”
The school boards’ association, however, has sought a permanent solution, which comes with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Fortosky thanked donors who helped fund the challenge, which allowed all eight Catholic boards in Saskatchewan “to keep education funds in the classroom and not divert them to cover costly courtroom expenses.”
“A significant amount of time and money has been spent on this court case and we are pleased that we can all refocus our energy and resources on our students and families to build upon the exemplary model of education we have in this province,” he said.
-With files from Canadian Catholic News