A landmark appeal in a two-year-old ruling concerning education governance in our province is set to be heard this week. The original 2017 ruling in the case brought to court by the Good Spirit School Division stated that the Province of Saskatchewan would not provide Catholic school boards funding for non-Catholic students.
The case was brought about by the community of Theodore's efforts to save its school from closure. Theodore is located 40 kilometres northeast of Yorkton. In 2003, the Yorkdale School Division, the predecessor to the Good Spirit School Division, determined that the school in Theodore would face closure due to low enrollment with the students being bussed to Springside. However, Theodore school endeavoured to strike out as a faith identified school. The small multi-graded school, St. Theodore School, currently operates within the Christ the Teacher School Division which oversees Catholic schools in the Yorkton and Melville areas.
The Yorkdale School Division launched the suit claiming that a Catholic school division should not receive government funding for non-Catholic students. That contention is maintained by the Good Spirit School Division which administers public schools in the region. In 2017, Justice Donald Layh agreed with the contention by stating the move to grant that funding to Catholic school boards was unconstitutional. The decision would have affected over 10,000 students in the province forcing them to attend public schools. The impact would have a profound effect in rural areas where shifting school populations in schools like St. Dominic and St. Augustine may result in serious funding and program implications.
The 2017 decision was appealed by the Province. Now the hearing is set to begin on March 12 in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in Regina. Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association, Tom Fortosky, explains the circumstance: "The Government of Saskatchewan has gone on record as saying they will use the 'notwithstanding clause' to basically check or overturn the decision on a go forward basis. So, there are no pressing implications at this stage."
The notwithstanding clause refers to Section 33 of the Charter which empowers provinces to override portions of the Charter in cases where broad public interests may be otherwise served. The Charter veto could be maintained for up to five years. However, beyond that, Fortowsky projects potential complications, "The implications down the road if the decision remains unchecked is that there would be some disruption certainly. Effectively, the case says that it's unconstitutional for the government to fund non-Catholic children who attend a Catholic School. What that would do is put a practical obstacle in the way of non-Catholic parents who would wish to choose Catholic education for their children."
Fortowsky notes that this scenario would have implications for both Catholic schools in Humboldt. As for Humboldt Collegiate, Fortosky outlines a different situation, "The high school itself is a public school with an agreement between the Catholic Division (Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools) and the public division (Horizon School Division) for students who attend that school. It strikes me that as a public school, this case would not affect it."
The notwithstanding clause has not been proclaimed in force to date. If it is invoked, it would remain in effect for a period of five years.