Saskatchewan

Sask. gov't argues why it should pay for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools

The Saskatchewan government and Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 will present their case before the province's highest court in Regina. They are appealing a landmark ruling made in 2017.

Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 will also make its case

The appeal hearing is scheduled for two days. It is believed that the case will be taken to the Supreme Court should the appeal fail. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Saskatchewan government argued Tuesday that it should be allowed to pay for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools.

It made its case at the Court of Appeal in Regina. The province is fighting Justice Donald Layh's landmark court decision made in 2017.

Layh wrote that funding "non-minority faith students" in Catholic schools violates both the Charter of Rights and "the state's duty of religious neutrality.

The province argued its current model is actually religiously neutral. It says imposing religious tests or demanding religious proof like a baptismal certification to determine funding would not be religiously neutral. 

"The government's approach is the religiously neutral approach," said Tom Irvine, the lawyer representing the attorney general for the province.

Irvine addressed the Court of Appeal for more than two hours.

He argued that religious neutrality does not equate considering the religion of people when considering funding.

"The government has no business asking people about their religious beliefs," he said.

Irvine said students currently receive equitable funding regardless of whether they are in the public or separate school system.

Irvine also suggested Layh erred in his interpretation of the constitution. He said Layh relied too much on historical context and independent research and in doing so imposed a "distorting lens on factual analysis and legal interpretation."

Irvine also said it's unclear whose Charter rights or religious beliefs have been violated in this case.

"The only winners are the public schools which may see their enrollments increase, with related increased funding," he said. "But is that what the charter is about? To help one government agency to increase its market share at the expense of another?"

'It doesn't have anything to do with religion': Catholic division

Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic School division echoed Irvine's remarks in its arguments Tuesday afternoon.

Collin Hirschfeld questioned the "true interest" of the public school division in this case. 

"What's their interest in this case? They want those students in their schools because that's where the funding goes. It doesn't have anything to do with religion," he said.

Hirschfeld also addressed the court for more than two hours. In his submissions he suggested Layh was biased.

He argued a statement made by the judge illustrated, "a bias in the attitude that a separate school system is something other than and less than a public school in our Saskatchewan education system."

Hirschfeld said, "the approach of the trial judge leads to the conclusion that separate schools cannot possibly have the same funding as a public system."

Furthermore, Hisrchfeld pointed to what Irvine noted earlier in his submissions: That this case involves the Charter even though no one in Theodore testified that their charter rights had been violated. 

He said this case involved a "hypothetical strawman," making it impossible to examine how someone is actually impacted by the funding of non-minority students in separate schools.

"Whose rights have been violated? We still don't know."

He, too, accused Layh of interpreting the constitution and the evidence through a "distorted lens."

The Good Spirit School Divsion is scheduled to argue in favour of Layh's decision Wednesday.

'One of the most significant lawsuits in the province's history'

The decision stemmed from a 2005 lawsuit launched by the Good Spirit School Division No. 204 (GSSD) against the province and Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212.

The case revolved around the village of Theodore, Sask. There were 42 elementary aged students enrolled at the public school in 2003. The public school division closed the school and wanted to bus students 17 kilometres down the road to Springside. 

Parents weren't happy with the idea and wanted to keep students in the town. A group of Roman Catholics used provisions in The Education Act of 1995 to petition the Minister of Education to form Theodore Roman Catholic School Division.

It bought the school and renamed it St. Theodore Roman Catholic School. The children, most who were not Catholic, remained in the village rather than remaining in the public system. 

"The community saved its school but prompted one of the most significant lawsuits in the province's history," court documents read. 

GSSD argued the constitutional protection of Catholic schools does not include the right for those schools to receive government funding for non–Catholic students. Layh found the public school division was correct. 

Only two other provinces, Alberta and Ontario, have publicly funded separate school systems. Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec both got rid of separate systems in the 1990s. 

The attorney general for Saskatchewan and Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 will present for two and a half hours each on Tuesday. They'll be followed by four intervenors.

On Wednesday the Good Spirit School Division No. 204 will present for five hours followed by one intervenor, the Public School Boards' Association of Alberta.

CBC Saskatchewan is live streaming the appeal hearing. 


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

  • Attorney General for Saskatchewan | 2.5 hours
  • Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 | 2.5 hours
  • Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) | 15 minutes
  • Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association (OCSTA) | 15 minutes
  • Association franco-ontarienne des conseils scolaires catholiques (AFOCSC) |15 minutes
  • Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association (ACSTA) | 15 minutes

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

  • Good Spirit School Division No. 204 | five hours
  • Public School Boards' Association of Alberta (PSBAA) | 15 minutes
  • Attorney General for Saskatchewan | 30 minute reply
  • Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 | 30 minute reply

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