Supreme Court won't hear appeal of Saskatchewan school funding case

·3 min read

REGINA — A legal battle that a judge once called one of the most important in Saskatchewan's history is over, after the country's highest court decided against hearing the case about funding non-Catholic students who attend separate schools.

The Supreme Court of Canada on Thursday dismissed a request for a leave to appeal by the Good Spirit School Division against the Saskatchewan government and a Catholic school division.

The issue began in 2003 when the village of Theodore, Sask., had its public kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school closed because of declining enrolment.

Court heard at the time that the closure meant 42 students in the community would have to be bused to another school 17 kilometres away.

After failed attempts to save the school from closing, a minority of Roman Catholic residents pushed the Saskatchewan government for a Catholic separate school.

The St. Theodore Roman Catholic School was created.

The Good Spirit School Division, which operated the original Theodore school but under a different name, brought forward legal action against the province and Catholic division over funding.

It argued the new Catholic division was not created to serve the community's Catholics, but rather to prevent students from being bused to a neighbouring town.

Fourteen years later, a Court of Queen's Bench judged ruled that funding for non-minority faith students attending separate schools infringed on equality rights and religious neutrality.

Justice Donald Layh said at issue was the provincial policy of funding separate schools based solely on student enrolment without regard to students' religion.

He wrote in his 2017 decision that the case was a flashpoint about the extent of separate school rights.

"The community saved its school but prompted one of the most significant lawsuits in the province’s history," Layh wrote.

When the decision came down, the province said it threatened to cause havoc to the education system.

The Saskatchewan Party government, led by former premier Brad Wall, introduced legislation invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure it could fund students attending Catholic or public school, regardless of their faith.

It also appealed the court decision. Last year, Saskatchewan's Appeal Court ruled in favour of the province and the Catholic school division.

Public Schools of Saskatchewan, which represents 15 public school boards, sought to bring the case to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Good Spirit School Division, arguing the issue had national importance.

Justice Minister Gord Wyant said that the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case allows the province to carry on with the status quo.

In a statement, Premier Scott Moe said he's pleased with the outcome.

"We can continue to rely on the previous ruling which provides certainty for thousands of families in our province," he said.

"Our government strongly supports parent and student choice in education, including Saskatchewan’s public, separate and faith-based schools."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press