SASKATOON — Premier Brad Wall announced May 1 that the Saskatchewan government will invoke the notwithstanding clause of The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to put on hold a court decision denying funding for non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools.
Section 33 of the Charter gives provincial legislatures the authority to override certain portions of the Charter for a five-year term. Invoking the notwithstanding clause requires an Act of the Legislative Assembly, which is being initiated, the premier said.
The decision to invoke the clause comes after an April 20 Court of Queen’s Bench ruling addressing the enrolment of non-Catholic students in a Catholic separate school in Theodore, Sask., which was formed after the public school district announced plans to close the community school. The court ruled that the provincial government must stop funding non-minority faith students to attend separate schools.
If allowed to stand, the ruling would force some 10,000 non-Catholic students out of Catholic schools in the province, according to a government media statement, which also said that the ruling could also risk provincial funding of 26 other faith-based schools, including Luther College, the Regina Christian School, the Saskatoon Christian School and the Huda School.
“We support school choice, including public, separate and faith-based schools,” Wall said. “We will defend school choice for students and parents.”
The premier said the government decided to announce their intention to invoke the notwithstanding clause in order to provide parents with clarity and assurance that there will be no change to the situation in Saskatchewan schools in the immediate future.
Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools board of education chair Diane Boyko sent a message to parents, guardians, staff and community members about the government decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause, and to provide details about a recently announced appeal of the court ruling.
“The government’s decision does not lessen the need for an appeal,” said Boyko. “A successful appeal would overturn the decision.”
“The decision to appeal has been unanimously endorsed by all eight Catholic school boards in the province. The case is specific to Christ the Teacher division, but affects all Catholic education in the province,” said Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association (SCSBA) spokesperson Tom Fortosky at an April 28 news conference. “The legal team representing Christ the Teacher School Division in this case has carefully reviewed the trial judge’s lengthy decision, and we believe that there are several strong grounds for appeal.”
Boyko said the premier’s announcement about invoking the notwithstanding clause was good news for parents, as it removes some of the uncertainty around the court ruling.
“Know that things will continue as usual within our division for the foreseeable future,” she said. “We will continue to provide the highest quality Catholic education in partnership with our families, church and community for anyone who chooses that for their children. We are proud of the education our Catholic schools provide, and we believe Catholic education matters.”
She reminded the GSCS community to contact elected officials to endorse the government’s recent action to support parental choice in education, and to encourage the government also to appeal the ruling.
The Catholic bishops serving in Saskatchewan also issued a letter addressing the court decision and encouraging the faithful to contact elected officials.
“The outcome of the current tensions regarding funding for faith-based education will have a deep, lasting impact on the Catholic Church in Saskatchewan, its role in education, our relations with our ecumenical and inter-faith partners, and with the community at large,” the bishops stated.
“As leaders of the Catholic churches in Saskatchewan, it is our strong hope that our society will allow religious faiths to play a constructive role in education as in other areas of our common life; and that Catholic schools might continue to welcome the children of families who aspire to faith-based education,” said the letter signed by the bishops of Prince Albert, Regina, Keewatin Le-Pas Catholic dioceses, the bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon, and the diocesan administrator of the Diocese of Saskatoon.
“We have much to offer, and society has much to lose if religious faith is marginalized and our values are not able to contribute to the common good,” said the bishops’ letter.