Grade one students relaxing on Ecole St. Elizabeth’s presentation stairs.  Some 11,000 children moved into new P3 schools this fall in Saskatchewan.  Photo courtesy of the Government of Saskatchewan

Campaign launched to protect Catholic schools in Saskatchewan

By 
  • November 24, 2017
REGINA – Catholic education in Saskatchewan is safe in the short term as the provincial government has vowed to use the notwithstanding clause to overturn a court ruling that threatened its existence, but school officials are looking to ensure its survival in the long term.

The Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards’ Association (SCSBA) has launched a fundraising campaign to raise $300,000 to cover anticipated legal costs to appeal an April court decision that threatened the existence of Catholic schools. Justice Donald Layh ruled April 21 in the Theodore school case that public funding of non-Catholic students in the Catholic school system is unconstitutional. The ruling prompted concerns from mainly rural Saskatchewan parents that their children would be forced to switch schools and be educated in different communities.

While Premier Brad Wall and the governing Saskatchewan Party almost immediately signalled its support for the system as it is, promising to invoke the notwithstanding clause to overrule the court’s decision on May 17, it’s a “political exercise” that would have to repeated every five years — the notwithstanding option is only good for that timeframe. Tom Fortosky, executive director of the SCSBA, said the association wants to appeal the original ruling and get closure on the matter as soon as possible.

“The reason we’re doing the appeal is that if we’re successful that’s a permanent solution to the issue,” said Fortosky.

The SCSBA has been seeking funds for its appeal since shortly after the 12-year court battle wrapped, but with the end of the school year and summer break near, and then the beginning of the new semester, there has been little time to do a proper campaign. That changed Nov. 15 when the association launched its fundraising efforts in earnest.

The eight Catholic school divisions under the association’s umbrella have banded together to guarantee the $300,000 legal experts estimate will be needed to fight the decision, first in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, and possibly all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

By the start of the public campaign, just under $20,000 had been raised.

“I’m confident and very hopeful that we’ll be able to meet our goal, raise the funds that we need for the appeal,” said Fortosky.

The association has turned to fundraising to preserve precious dollars intended for classrooms. The most recent provincial budget saw a belt-tightening across all services, including education, to deal with a billion-dollar deficit.

“We’re concerned about having operating funds being used for legal costs,” said Fortosky.

The “soft goal” for the Catholic school boards is to raise about $7 per each of their 40,000 students.

“We are committed to doing whatever is necessary to help protect a parent’s ability to choose a faith-based Catholic education for their child(ren),” wrote SCSBA president Paula Scott in her appeal for support. “We believe in what our Catholic schools have to offer, and know you do as well. We therefore encourage you to consider, over the next couple of months, making your contribution to our collective challenge.”

Fortosky is confident they have solid grounds to reverse Layh’s ruling, but “there is no guarantee in a court of law.”

The association expects to be in court by mid-2018.

(Conlon is a writer in Regina.)

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