Is Catholic education being preserved in Theodore, Sask.?

By Glen Argan

I give Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall full marks for invoking the notwithstanding clause to protect Catholic schools in that province as well as the government’s right to fund the education of non-Catholic students attending those schools.

A government that so openly and strongly defends Catholic education is a thing to be cherished in this era of militant secularism.

However, employing the province’s right to opt out of a court ruling which applies the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does strike me as using a sledgehammer when a scalpel would suffice. Further, it gives the false impression that Catholic school rights are not constitutionally guaranteed, that a highly unusual act of the legislature is needed to override human rights in favour of Catholic education.

In fact, the right to fully-funded Catholic education is constitutionally guaranteed in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. A court appeal should make that clear. To its credit, the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association has launched such an appeal.

The story goes back to 2005 when the Good Spirit Public School Division announced it would close the public school in the village of Theodore because of declining enrollment. Local Catholics banded together to form a Catholic school district which took over the Theodore school and ran it as a Catholic school, one in which the majority of the students were non-Catholic.

A legal battle ensued. Twelve years and several million dollars later, a Queen’s Bench justice ruled that the school should not receive provincial funding for the non-Catholic students. It was a local ruling, but one which if upheld by higher courts could have negative implications for Catholic schools across Saskatchewan and possibly in Alberta and Ontario as well.

Wall’s first response was to say that his government would bring in legislation which would prevent one school board from suing another. A reasonable reaction, in my opinion. It is scandalous to use taxpayers’ dollars intended for children’s education for hissing matches between school boards.

Remaining is the undiscussed issue — at least in the coverage that I have seen — of the intention of the Catholic residents of Theodore in forming the Catholic district when their public school was to be closed. The facts are relevant here, and I do not have access to them, so I cannot pronounce judgment.

Still, one is entitled to ask whether the primary purpose of the residents was to educate their children in the Catholic faith or simply to keep the local school open. If it was the former, in what ways was this evident prior to the announcement of the closure of the local school? If it was the latter, does this mean that whenever a rural public school board decides to close a school with dwindling enrollment, the Catholic residents will be able to keep the school open by establishing a Catholic school district?

The latter possibility is disturbing in that it makes the right to establish a Catholic school district in towns with declining populations a threat that local residents can use to keep their school open. The main goal of such “Catholic” schools would thus be the survival of local communities rather than the passing-on of the Catholic faith.

The SCSBA should be discussing this issue as it strikes at the very identity of Catholic schools and may end up making a mockery of the constitutional right to tax-supported Catholic education.

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