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Why Saskatchewan has a publicly-funded Catholic school system

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The Greater Saskatoon Catholic School board surprised and disappointed some with a leaked email this week, raising questions about the difference between public and Catholic schools in the province.

The Catholic school system in Saskatchewan has a long history and is ultimately protected by the province’s constitution — something the courts have backed up.

Historians point to the 1905 Saskatchewan Act, which is the first government document that indicates separate public and Catholic schools.

“It was also determined at that time that if you're going to have separate schools, you need to fund those schools,” executive director of the Catholic School Boards Association Tom Fortosky told CTV News.

“Essentially what [the Saskatchewan Act] says is that if the government provides any funding to public or separate schools ... they cannot discriminate between public and separate schools.”

He said that meant it has to be equivalent funding.

“Property taxes were the main funder of schools at that time. The government also provided grants to schools. So what the Catholic community wanted is protections for the separate school rights.”

The Catholic community was concerned about what happened to the east.

“What happened in Manitoba in the 1890s is that … (constitutional protection for) Catholic education was lost,” Fortosky said.

“They were very concerned that unless they got the approval or some constitutional protections in the new Saskatchewan Act, they thought they might actually lose it the same way that it was lost in Manitoba.”

During the creation of the province, Catholics put their foot down in a demand for Catholic schools.

“It was after a lot of discussion and negotiation argumentation, that the constitutional rights were protected in the constitution of Saskatchewan, and also the funding piece was protected in the constitution. So that's how it all got in.”

THE SASKATCHEWAN ACT OF 1905

Just before the Saskatchewan Act was introduced, the education system in Canada underwent some changes.

“In 1892, they create more or less a Department of Education, a single department of education that oversees public and separate schools. And that system that was created in 1892 is confirmed in 1901. So single board of education you can have, it supports both public and separate schools,” author and historian Bill Weiser told CTV News.

It was Wilfrid Laurier that introduced the Saskatchewan Act, which ended up being a political battleground.

“The debate in the House of Commons is so acrimonious over this about what is Laurier up to? What's he trying to do? That the debate delays the entry of Saskatchewan and Alberta into Confederation until September 1, 1905,” Weiser said.

“One of the sad things about this episode is that not only does the entry of these provinces get sullied by this very acrimonious debate over the educational system, but what also gets lost in 1905 is that Saskatchewan and Alberta were treated differently, unlike all other provinces at the time, according to the 1905 legislation, they would not get control over their public lands and resources.”

Weiser said the plans for Saskatchewan at the time were very Anglo driven.

“There was this emphasis after 1885 on the British character of the region. So there were Catholic concerns at the time,” he said.

“There is a real strain of anti-Catholicism in the early 20th century.”

THE THEODORE CASE

The Catholic school system was challenged about two decades ago in a Saskatchewan court, and it was a battle that took almost 20 years to settle.

At the time the court decision came down, John Whyte was the Deputy Minister of Justice.

“What they [prosecutors] were saying was that what was being protected constitutionally was publicly-funded Catholic education for Catholics. Not a publicly funded Catholic, organized and managed education system, the difference being that the system that was constantly protected in the development of provincial autonomy was Catholic education for Catholics,” Whyte said.

“The high Court of Queen's Bench of Saskatchewan said what was protected was Catholic education for Catholics.”

The decision would mean non-Catholics would not be funded to attend Catholic schools.

But the appeals court disagreed.

“The Court of Appeal decided that the agreement in the Confederation in the period that provinces were created, and the agreement that was put in place in the 1905 Saskatchewan Act, is an agreement that guarantees school funding for Catholic schools, meaning schools that are run by the Catholic church, schools that embody Catholic principles, and Catholic administration. It doesn't have to be one which is available to Catholics.”

Whyte said the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the case.

“That case was never reversed," he said. "And that's what we have now.”

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