PHOTOS: Calgary Catholic School District headquarters (Screen grab from Google Street View). Below: Mr. Justice Donald Layh being sworn in in 2014 (Yorkton Today), Edmonton Catholic School District Headquarters, Edmonton Public School Trustee Michael Janz.

Holy smoke! The ruling Thursday by a Saskatchewan judge that the province’s government may no longer legally fund non-Catholic students in Catholic schools is the legal equivalent of the Mother Of All Bombs!

In an era of declining enrolments in many communities in which separate Catholic school boards successfully compete with public schools for students of all faiths and no faith, and the public money that comes with them, the implications for the separate Catholic school system are potentially devastating.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to this ruling from supporters of often financially hard-pressed public schools, many of whom think funding two redundant school systems is unfair and wasteful, while others, like teachers’ unions, have a vested interest in a healthy Catholic school system. Needless to say, the political implications in both Saskatchewan and Alberta, and Ontario as well, are far-reaching.

It was only just starting to sink in yesterday what a catastrophe this ruling could be for Catholic education both in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In these two former parts of the North West Territories, the same 150-year-old constitutional compromise led to the creation of large and powerful Roman Catholic school systems that nowadays need plenty of non-Catholic students to maintain their position in the community, not to mention their cash flow.

For example, some estimates suggest that only half of the 40,000 children in the schools run by the Edmonton Catholic School District have Roman Catholic baptismal certificates. At best, then, if the ruling were to be applied here as well, Catholic education would be in for a significant downsizing and the Edmonton Public School Board would have to pick up most of the pieces. After all, a few non-Catholic parents might be willing to pay full school fees to keep their kids in Catholic school, but many wouldn’t, even if they could afford it.

So an appeal is certain of the ruling by Mr. Justice Donald Layh of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench in the lawsuit that arose in 2003 from the situation in the town of Theodore, where a public school was closed for lack of students, a Catholic school opened, and many parents transferred their children to the Catholic system to keep them off buses and close to home.

The outcome Thursday in the long legal dispute between the public Good Spirit School Division and the Christ the Teacher Catholic Separate School Division was Mr. Justice Layh’s ruling that provincial funding for non-Catholic students “is a violation of the state’s duty of religious neutrality” under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Moreover, he ruled, “provincial government funding of non-minority faith students attending separate schools is a violation of equality rights” set out in the Charter.

Accordingly, the judge said in his clearly written 242-page ruling, Saskatchewan laws providing per-student grants to non-Catholic students in Catholic schools are of no force and effect. He gave the province only until June 30 next year to figure out what to do about it.

Presumably the ensuing crisis will take longer than that to reach a climax, though, even if the inevitable appeals are unsuccessful. Legal appeals, after all, move at their own stately pace.

Still, no one on either side should be too confident of the outcome in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal or after that, presumably and if necessary, in the Supreme Court of Canada. Notwithstanding confident pronouncements by legal teams, once an issue like this with strong arguments on both sides gets before the courts, the final outcome can be a crapshoot.

How could we avoid chaos in Alberta if Mr. Justice Layh’s ruling is upheld on appeal?

Remember back in February, when former Edmonton Public School Board chair Michael Janz argued in his blog that the public board should set up its own Catholic education alternative? All of a sudden, this looks less mischievous and more like common sense. After all, it would, arguably, guarantee Catholic education as enshrined in Canada’s original constitutional document in 1867 – indeed, it would be much closer to what the drafters of the British North America Act had in mind than the situation that exists in Alberta and Saskatchewan today.

As Mr. Janz, who is still a public school trustee, pointed out at the time, constitutional guarantees notwithstanding, nowhere is it written that Catholic education must permeate every other topic taught in schools.

Catholic school boards with their administrative superstructures and huge budgets – $397 million in Edmonton and $591 million at the Calgary Catholic School District, including the legal costs of fights over things like gay-straight alliances and the rights of transgender teachers – could be absorbed into the pubic school systems with significant savings.

Naturally, this idea will be anathema to supporters of Catholic education now – literally, perhaps. But, ironically, if the dice roll against them in the appeal courts, it could offer the best way to preserve publicly supported Catholic education.

Don’t count on this suggestion being received very warmly yet, but maybe it’s something Alberta Education Minister David Eggen should quietly ask his officials to look into.

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  1. Here in BC the province sets a $ amount formula per student for public schools and private schools get 50% per student of what the public schools get.

    So, for example, BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark’s son goes to a $20k/year private school and the province contributes 50% of what they fund at public schools for the private students there. Same thing at all of the private religious schools across the province.

    I’m not sure if we have that pesky “constitutional compromise” that y’all have to deal with.

  2. I think the best chance this decision has of being overturned on appeal (granted, IANAL and all) is if the Catholic system were offering services unavailable in the public system, particularly those guaranteed by Charter rights (second language instruction, for one).

    If the ruling stands, both the Catholic and public education systems are going to be in crisis to deal with the movement of students between systems.

  3. The idea put forward by Mr Janz of religion simply being a class and not permeating the school misses the mark as it could equally be said that an ethics or citizenship course could address the freedom from the state religion in public non seperate education. A composite board has potential merit to address efficiency issues and maximizing insfracture dollars but we need not sacrifice the constitutional rights of religious education.

    1. Its called after school catechism. Why should tax payers that don’t agree with the separate school board have to pay for a inefficient two board system.

  4. In many areas in Alberta Catholic school boards do exactly that: offer second language instruction not available in the public system, specifically to entice non-Catholic parents into enrolling their children and yet are able to refuse the parents the ability to run for any trustee positions as they aren’t Catholic.Great scheme!

  5. In some areas Catholic Schools do offer French language programs where none exist in the Public system. My daughter attended a Francophone school from K to 12. The school was initially a public french only school but when my daughter was in about grade 5 it became a Francophone Catholic division school. Now the school had always had a very catholic component in its teachings and operation and this move really just formalized what was there.

    Our family is neither french not catholic so we really appreciated the opportunity for our daughter to receive a good quality true french education, particularly as the french immersion program was not supported by the local public system and was reduced to a K to 8 program..

    However, if this ruling had occurred while my daughter was in school she would have been forced into the english system as we had no rights to the school as we were neither French nor Catholic.

    So while I agree with the Saskatchewan ruling, there needs to be room for some exemptions, or just make and fund only public schools and force the public system to provide for all needs.

    1. I would be interested to know how one gets their child into a Francophone school without being Francophone themselves. Unlike the Catholic system if you can’t prove one parent is Francophone they won’t talk to you, this has been my experience.

      Perhaps we should open that up as well, I’m trying to find where the facility provided with public funds needs to be for their exclusive use.

      1. Jim, in our case it was done by demonstrating respect for the Francophone language and culture. Having an older child who was in french immersion, but that program was demonstrably being dismantled by the local school board also helped show that we were committed. Being in a very small area helped too. You are right that we did not have a ‘right’ to have our child attend, but we managed to get the school principal to be supportive. I know of many other families whose children were not accepted, so it was not as though the school was accepting everyone.

        My niece and nephew attended a larger centre’s french immersion program and from what I could see that program was excellent, mostly because it was supported by the school and the school board. So I would not give up on french immersion as a means to have ones children become bilingual.

        BTW, our older daughter later attended the Francophone school as she now had the ‘right’ due to her younger sister attending the school.

        I don’t think you will have much luck getting Francophone schools open to all as the constitutionality seems to be well established.

        1. That is interesting thank you for the reply. The last part of my comment more opening up the discussion of the third less talked about school board. And asking the question if you can offer a Catholic education within a public system why not Francophone? Section 23 doesn’t layout the specifics and I was wondering where the it was decided that there needed to be a separate bureaucracy and separate buildings to deliver the 3 publicly funded education systems.

          1. The difficulty for any francophone school existing in a public system is that the francophone school has special needs that quickly get washed over by school board members who don’t understand these needs. In my experience there are too many school board members who are anti-quebec and anti-french so are not willing to allow a francophone school to fulfil its mandate.

            BTW, I’m not sure that you can deliver a catholic education within a public system as there is more to catholic schools than a few catechism classes.

            Basically the families who want a french education don’t trust the public system to keep delivering, and the public education doesn’t want to deliver french education. If these problems could be overcome, then there is no reason to have separate systems.

            If you would like to continue this dialogue then perhaps David could connect us by exchanging our e-mails, unless this meets his blogs needs.

  6. I taught for Edmonton Catholic for 30 years, and I must say that the trustees and senior administration of the system have to get their head out of their collective butts and stop being an evangelical movement. The system has changed appreciably to a point where I felt uncomfortable, as an educator, trying to shoehorn religion into every opening available in the Program of Studies.
    When this trend began, with the promotion of “Permeation”, I wondered whether the powers that be realized what a can of worms they were opening. Having come up through ECS, and participating in the obligatory fights with our “Protestant” opposite numbers, I was well aware that Catholic Public Education was unpopular with a large segment of the population as a whole. Those many decades later, when directive after directive and inservice after inservice called on teachers to become soldiers of Christ, I was vocal in my opposition because I realized that (history aside) we existed at the pleasure of the majority.
    I became a teacher to pass on the collective wisdom and repository of knowledge to future citizens. I was more than happy to do this in a Catholic school where the homogeneous nature of the staff and student body provided a sense of belonging – I did not sign up to be an agent of metaphysics, slipping dogma to an unwitting captive audience. I’d rather leave that to the priests.

  7. Lets compare what is spent per student between the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School system. The CBE has about 115 000 students and spends just over $11 300 per student. The CCSS has 55 000 students and spends roughly $10 800 per student. So yes I am sure proponents of having one school system would like to eliminate the separate school system and ramp costs up some more.

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