Over a very dramatic two weeks, Catholic schools in Saskatchewan first lost — and then apparently regained — the right to receive funding in respect of non-Catholic students who attend Catholic schools in the province.
On April 20, 2017, the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench (the “Court”) released its decision in Good Spirit School Division No. 24 v. Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 and the Government of Saskatchewan ("Good Spirit").1 It held that the Government of Saskatchewan cannot provide funding to Catholic schools in respect of non-Catholic students who attend such schools, because doing so violates the freedom of religion and equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ("Charter").2
In an unexpected development, on May 1, 2017, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall announced that the provincial government would invoke the Charter's "notwithstanding clause" to override the Court's decision.3 This will be only the fifth use of the notwithstanding clause in the 35 years of the Charter's history, and the first time it has been invoked since 2000.
Despite the government's use of the override, the Court's decision in Good Spirit provides an interesting analysis of denominational rights in Canada, and demonstrates the tension between constitutional protection of separate schools and the interests of non-Catholics.
Denominational Education Rights in Canada
To understand the Court's decision in Good Spirit, it is necessary to have a general understanding of denominational rights in Canada.
Roman Catholics and Protestants in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and Roman Catholics in Ontario, have a constitutionally protected right to religious education under section 93(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867 (the "Constitution Act").4 This constitutional protection arose out of a historical compromise at Confederation: a province's legislation respecting denominational schools existing at the time of Confederation would be preserved after that province joined Canada.
Only Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, Ontario and Quebec had legislation providing for denominational schools at the time they joined Canada. While Newfoundland and Quebec have since abolished denominational rights in their respective provinces through constitutional amendments, separate school rights continue to be litigated in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
The Facts in Good Spirit
Good Spirit arose out of the operation of an elementary school in the town of Theodore, Saskatchewan. In 2003, the Yorkdale School Division (now the Good Spirit School Division) closed its elementary school in Theodore due to low enrolment, which meant that its 42 students would have to be bussed to the school in a neighbouring community, 17 kilometers away. In response, a local group of Roman Catholics petitioned the Saskatchewan Minister of Education to form a new Catholic school division, which then purchased the former school, and operated it as St. Theodore Roman Catholic School.5 Many non-Catholics in Theodore chose to send their students to the local Catholic school, rather than bus them to the nearest public school. When the school opened in 2003, only 31% of the students were Catholic. At the time of trial, only 35% of the students enrolled were Catholic.6
The public Good Spirit School Division brought a lawsuit, challenging the government's funding of non-minority faith students in Saskatchewan's Catholic schools.7
The Court's Analysis
It is well-established that practices that are protected by the denominational rights in section 93 of the Constitution Act cannot be challenged under the Charter (because one part of the constitution cannot be used to attack another part of the constitution). As a result, the Court in Good Spirit first had to determine whether the province's funding of non-Catholic students attending a separate school was protected by section 93 of the Constitution Act. If it was, no Charter challenge could be brought.
The Court first affirmed the principle that sub-section 93(1) of the Constitution Act protects only denominational rights that existed when a province joined Confederation. As Catholic schools in Saskatchewan did not have the right to receive public funding in respect of non-Catholic students when Saskatchewan joined Canada in 1901, the Court found that such funding would not relate to a "denominational aspect" of Catholic schools within the scope of the provision.8
The Court then considered sub-section 93(3). This section empowers provinces to enact new legislation with respect to separate schools, after joining Confederation. The Court found that, in order to receive constitutional protection under sub-section 93(3), the province's legislation must relate to the "denominational aspect" of separate schools.9 The Court concluded that educating non-Catholic students could not relate to the "denominational aspects" of a Catholic school, and that, accordingly, funding for non-Catholic students in Catholic schools provided for in post-1901 legislation in Saskatchewan did not fall within section 93(3) of the Constitution Act, and could therefore be challenged under the Charter.
The Court then proceeded to consider the Charter challenge. In a brief analysis, the Court found that funding for non-Catholic students in Catholic schools was contrary to the principle of freedom of religion and equality (protected by sections 2(a) and 15, respectively, of the Charter). Specifically, the Court found that:
- It gave an unfair advantage to Catholic schools, by allowing them the opportunity to teach the virtues of their religion to non-members at the expense of the public.10
- The same benefit was not extended to other religious schools, who would not receive equivalent public funding in respect of students of other faiths.11
- It provided an advantage to parents of non-Catholic students who were “comfortable” with their children receiving a Catholic education but denied that advantage to those who were not.12
The Remedy, the Override, and the Aftermath
Having determined that the funding of non-minority faith students violated the Charter and could not be justified, the Court declared that the provisions of the provincial legislation that granted funding to separate schools respecting students not of the minority faith were of no force and effect.13 While the Court stayed the declaration until June 30, 2018,14 as noted above, on May 1, 2017, the Government of Saskatchewan announced it would invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Court's decision.
Nonetheless, the decision in Good Spirit may trigger some questions as to the ability of provincial governments to provide funding in respect of non-Catholic15 students attending separate schools in Ontario and Alberta. As the Court acknowledged in Good Spirit, Canada is becoming a "complicated mosaic of religious (and non-religious traditions)"16, and the boundaries of denominational rights in the country will surely be tested as it continues to change.
However, the Court's Good Spirit decision is not binding on courts in Ontario and Alberta, and whether or not a similar challenge could brought in those provinces would depend, in part, upon: (i) the nature of the historical and current separate school funding arrangements in those provinces; and (ii) how the governments of those provinces might attempt to justify the current funding arrangements as accomplishing important objectives (such as efficiencies in the school system and ensuring the availability of Catholic education within reasonable proximity to students' homes); and (iii) whether Ontario courts would find the reasoning of the Saskatchewan courts to be persuasive. In the event that such a Charter challenge was successful, the governments of Alberta and Ontario could also follow Saskatchewan's lead and invoke the notwithstanding clause in response, but it is difficult to predict at this time whether they would do so.