Saskatchewan parents group calls for 1 secular school system

Some parents in Saskatchewan think the days of a having both a public and separate school system should come to an end.

OneSystemSask says change would mean better education and big money savings

The group OneSystemSask is calling for a single secular school system in Saskatchewan.

Some parents in Saskatchewan think the days of a having both a public and separate school system should come to an end.

Saskatchewan Justice Donald Layh ruled that the provincial government must stop paying for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools in the province last Thursday.

Now, a parent-led movement aims to take the issue one step further. On its website, the group OneSystemSask says it's time for a single secular school system in Saskatchewan.

Some of the parents in the group have a Catholic background, while some do not practice any religion. Whether their children are enrolled in the Catholic school system or the public school system, their stance is the same when it comes to getting rid of the Catholic school system.

"Currently, there is about $93 million [spent] in administrative costs between the two school boards province-wide," said David Richards, the spokesperson for the group.

He said having one system would mean major cost savings, and ensure better and more equal education.

"While amalgamating the two school boards wouldn't necessarily reduce the number of teachers or the individual cost per student … what it would do is reduce administrative costs and remove redundancies within the two school systems."

OneSystemSask says moving to a single school system would mean major cost savings, and ensure better and more equal education. (Government of Saskatchewan)

While Richards said studying religion from an academic perspective is important, a secular school system wouldn't favour one religion over another.

"There are hundreds of different religious faiths practised in the province, and giving special financial privilege to one over another goes against the core values of the province and the country," he said.

That would mean no prayer, Catholic mass or other forms of religious practice in any Saskatchewan school.

"The idea is to not have existing students feel excluded or othered by being in school," he said. "It means every student in the province would get the same quality of education regardless of their religious beliefs."

Currently, their group is still gauging how much support there is for their movement, which Richards assures is not a partisan issue.

"We're hoping in light of the recent court ruling and recent budget cuts to education that number is going to include the vast majority of the province," he said. "We know we already have support within the Sask. Party, MLAs and otherwise, so we're hoping that support can be made public.

"Any political party that advocates for fiscal responsibility should be on board with saving money."

A single-school-board system has been implemented in Quebec and Newfoundland. That leaves Saskatchewan as one of only three provinces left with a separate school system, which Richards said was patterned after a 150-year-old system.

"Most of the other provinces have found ways of making this work and I don't see why Saskatchewan can't enter the 20th century as well."​

School Boards Association not in favour

Larry Huber, executive director with the public section of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, said it is not supportive of the parent group's message.

He does not want to go as far as supporting one secular school system, but wants to see Justice Layh's decision respected by the provincial government.

On Monday, Premier Brad Wall and Education Minister Don Morgan clearly said they will work to find a way around the judgement.

"The message that that gives is that the government seems to be less concerned with the rule of law … and are more concerned with penalizing public schools for pursuing an important case to protect the public school system for our children," said Huber.

"Our point is that the judgement is there and you need to do some discussion in a way that's more productive than suggesting that you're not prepared to follow the law."

Huber said the association has been asking for years whether non-Catholic students should get funding to attend Roman Catholic schools rather than public schools.

By allowing non-Catholic students into the separate school division, Huber said the state had violated the duty of religious neutrality, and said that discriminated against people of other religions.

"It promoted the interest of the Catholic faith by allowing it to disseminate its teachings to people of non-Catholic faiths in a way not provided to other religious groups," he said.

If the ruling stands, separate schools will be able to continue to accept students of non-Catholic faiths, but the students' parents would have to pay for tuition.

According to Huber, a survey by Saskatoon Public Schools found that the biggest reason why non-Catholic kids attend Catholic schools is proximity, followed by friends and sports programs. He said practising faith was further down the list of reasons.

The judge gave parents until September 2018 to transfer their children to a new school if needed. Huber said a transitional phase is crucial.

"You try not to, as best you can, to cause children and parents problems," he explained.

CBC has contacted the Saskatchewan Catholic School Board Association for comment.

With files from Lise Ouangari