Province appealing court ruling

Prairie South board ‘disappointed’ in government’s decision

Saskatchewan’s government has announced it will be appealing the court ruling that it must stop funding non-minority faith students in separate schools in the province.

“After a thorough review of the decision, we will be filing a notice of appeal to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal,” Justice Minister and Attorney General Gordon Wyant said in a release.  “In doing so, I hope we get further clarification on this matter that is vitally important for Saskatchewan families.”

The ruling, made by Yorkton Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Donald Layh, found non-Catholic students receiving funds to attend Catholic schools problematic under several sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The ruling also stated that the Constitution Act does not provide rights to separate schools in Saskatchewan to receive provincial funding for non-religious minority students, and that such funding is a violation of the “state’s duty of religious neutrality.”

A public outcry prompted the government to invoke the notwithstanding clause, which gives legislatures the authority to override certain parts of the Charter for a period of five years. An appeal, if the court found in the government’s favour, would render the use of the notwithstanding clause unnecessary and pre-empt another round of controversy in five years.

Vice chair of the Board of Trustees for the Prairie South School Division Tim McLeod told the Times-Herald the government’s decision to appeal is “disappointing.”

“The government is clearly choosing sides on this issue, which is concerning to all public school boards because the government is quite literally the hand that feeds us,” he said in an email on Thursday. “They already have absolute control over the funding we receive and now they are taking sides in the battle over which students we serve as well.”

McLeod said that he and other members of the Prairie South board understand that people feel they have the right to choose where their children go to school, but argued that while the right to a public education is enshrined in the constitution for everyone, the right to choose between that public system and a separate school is not. That’s reserved for minority faith children.

“We believe Justice Layh interpreted the law correctly,” he said. “We can appreciate how his ruling may upset many people because the practice of allowing non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools has been allowed to go uncorrected for so long now that people have developed a sense of entitlement that is being mistaken for their lawful rights.”

He also noted that a previous provincial administration had a chance to submit a constitutional reference question – a request by a government to the courts for an advisory opinion on a major legal issue – 10 years ago, but did not take it. Guidance from the courts then, he argued, would have saved a long and expensive legal process.

“As the Trustees of Prairie South Schools we have been, and will continue to be, committed to dedicating our limited resources to the education needs of all students in our division,” he said.

The Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association released a statement Thursday praising the government’s move, saying the decision to appeal “strengthens the case to have the ruling overturned.”

“We truly hope this, along with Premier Wall’s invoking the notwithstanding clause, sets parents’ minds at ease as they consider their options for next year, and years to come,” said past president and spokesperson for the association Tom Fortosky.