One System Saskatchewan (OneSystemSask) is a grassroots organisation working towards unifying school systems within the province of Saskatchewan, Canada. The group was formed shortly after a court ruling in Theodore Saskatchewan that requireds a fundamental change in how the separate school system in the province of Saskatchewan was funded. Believing that the time was right to speak to the public about both the ethical and financial reasons for unifying school systems, One System Saskatchewan was formed by a small group of parents and citizens who felt they wanted that they needed to do something to get the message out about why this was so important.
David Richards (DR) is a spokesperson for One System Saskatchewan. A father of 2 two school going children and a citizen of Saskatchewan since 1992, he has been involved with many causes involving secularism and promoting government neutrality in matters of religion within the province for years. David is a former Sunday School teacher, was peer chaplain while in University, and has many fond memories of his time involved with organised religion. David has kept his strong beliefs about the importance of separation of between church and state, even as his own religious views changed over time, and now works with a number of organisations that promote religious equality. Terri Murray spoke to David in a recent interview for Conatus News:
TM: Can you tell me a bit about how OneSystemSask got started?
DR: There have been Many of us in the province who for years have felt for years that a publicly funded, religiously segregated school system was no longer in line with the values that our country has grown to support. The idea of a Catholic School system was a constitutional compromise that pre-dates the existence of our country and came into being when Canada East and Canada West were still British colonies. The Catholic School system compromise was created to protect what was (at the time) a persecuted religious minority from being forced to assimilate into a Protestant school system. Over the years, as the “Protestant” school system secularised and became the public system we have today, the “Catholic” system was no longer required to fulfill its original mandate and became simply a way for the government to use taxpayer dollars to fund a Christian religious education.
Until recently, the cost savings of unifying the two systems didn’t seem significant enough to warrant a whole upheaval of the system. But two recent events dramatically changed that perspective. First, recent provincial budget deficits mean that the estimated $120-$160 million in annual savings from unifying the school systems functions as a has become a huge incentive to change the current system. The second motivating factor is a recent court ruling that providing found public funding for non-Catholics to attend Catholic Schools is unconstitutional.
In light of those two factors, a group of us got together and organised an effort to unify the school systems. Within about four days, we went from four people around a kitchen table to thousands of unique page views on our website, an explosion of likes and shares on social media, interviews with TV, radio, and newspapers across the province, and both the Premier and Education Minister addressing our concerns in the rotunda of the legislature.
TM: Why shouldn’t the Sask. government provide funding for non-Catholic children to attend Catholic Schools?
DR: The province has for decades been violating the spirit of section 93 of our Constitution. Only recently has a court case come up that has demonstrated that we have been violating the letter of the law as well. Our Constitution is a somewhat complicated document, but at its core, its provisions ensuring separation of church and state would normally make it unconstitutional for the government to give preferential treatment to one religion over all others by publicly funding it.
Section 93, the constitutional exception that was designed to protect a small religious minority, had been changed over time to instead provide preferential treatment to the religious majority by becoming far more of a “Christian” school system and not just a Catholic one. It’s almost as though an incredibly effective affirmative action programme became so good at leveling a playing field that it stopped being used to protect a minority group and instead started giving special privileges to an advantaged majority.
TM: Are there religious parents who support OneSystemSask? And if so, how do they view the issue?
DR: The vast majority of people we have talked to, Christian or otherwise, walk away from the conversation supporting the idea of a unified school system. Christians in Canada have a proud history of secularism and defending religious freedom, even for those outside their own faith. The fact that they see millions of dollars wasted on enforcing religious segregation in our schools when that money could be spent on teachers, programs, and equipment instead, is also something that resonates with taxpayers, regardless of religion.
TM: Do you find that many people misunderstand secularism, believing (falsely) that secularists are necessarily atheists?
DR: That is definitely a common misunderstanding. However, one of the things that helps to combat that misconception is that one of our two primary spokespeople is a practising Christian who himself went to a Catholic School. They, and many other parents and citizens of faith, passionately believe in their religion but also recognize the powerful value of the government being neutral in matters of religion.
TM: Is there a fear that merging the two (Catholic and public) school systems into one will facilitate a creeping religiosity in the public education sector? Instead of purging religious privilege from the system, could it instead mean that religion seeps into all education?
DR: Our constitution gives Catholic Schools special protections against charges of human rights violations. If Saskatchewan opts out of section 93, the new unified school system would not have those exemptions. Catholic schools would no longer be legally allowed to fire someone for being LGBT, refuse to hire someone because they are Jewish, or promote one religious viewpoint over that of other faiths. The unified system would certainly be allowed to have a course that teaches ethics or a course on world religions, but they would be required to abide by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms when doing so.
TM: What have been the biggest obstacles that your group has faced so far?
DR: Supporters of a segregated separate Catholic School System are far more willing to be single issue voters on this subject. Even if we conducted polling and found that 70% of the province would prefer a unified system, most of that 70% wouldn’t change who they vote for provincially because of it. On the flip side, even if it was only 30% of the population wanting to keep special rights for themselves that aren’t enjoyed by others, many of that 30% would be willing to punish any political party that takes those privileges away. Overcoming that will require a lot of bravery from our political leaders.
TM: What part of your involvement with One System Sask stands out the most?
DR: I was speaking to an employee of a Catholic School in the province and they said to me, “I need to make sure I’m hiding that I’m both queer and Jewish from my boss because I could get fired for either”. Without a drop of exaggeration or hyperbole, this employee is completely correct that their employer could legally fire them for being Jewish (as per a late 1990’s court case, Daly et al. v. Province of Ontario, upheld by Supreme Court of Canada) or possibly for being LGBT (as per the ongoing Jan Buterman case in Alberta).
TM: Is support for your ideas growing in the region? And what changes to the current system do you see ahead?
DR: We are seeing enormous support within the province. To be honest, the response to OneSystemSask was more positive that I could have imagined. At the end of the day, the status quo can’t continue because of the Theodore court ruling so there are only three main options going forward.
The first possibility is that the government can do does nothing, which would mean, effective June 2018, tens of thousands of children are kicked out of their current schools and going forward only baptized Catholics get to go to the fully government-funded separate Catholic schools.
The second option is that the government can use Canada’s constitutional “nuclear option”, which allows a government to over-rule judicial decisions, and implement a law that violates our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a temporary option, because all laws that use the clause have a five year sunset provision, and that may not even work, because it only allows a government to over-ride certain parts of the Charter.
The third option, and the one we are hoping is eventually decided on, is that the government passes legislation, similar to what other provinces have passed in the past, that which declares that section 93 no longer applies to Saskatchewan. At that point, children would continue going to the same schools they go to today, and going forward, new students could attend the school closest to their home instead of having to pick from two competing public school systems. The process would be slightly more complicated than just, “taking the crosses off the wall and changing the name of the school”, but only marginally so. Unlike Catholic Schools in the US, the church itself does not own any stake in the schools themselves. They are all 100% owned by the province, so the majority of changes required for unifying the two systems would be administrative.
TM: Catholic schools are famously excellent at producing top-notch basketball teams. As a huge fan of the sport, I have to ask, will neutralising education have an impact on the best sport in the world?
DR: I’m also a big fan of the Canadian-invented game of basketball and was proud to attend a public high school in Regina with multiple city championship titles. Looking back on the past several decades of high school championships in the province, both the public and separate system have been well represented and I’m confident the quality of high school athletics will continue to be great after unifying school systems. As a side note, the only NBA player from Saskatchewan, Trey Lyles of the Utah Jazz, left the province before going to high school so we will never know if he would have gone to a public school or a separate one.
TM: Thanks David. Good luck to OneSystemSask’s campaign.
(Editor’s Note: We’ve previously covered concerns relating to education of children in ‘faith schools’ here. Although the two are slightly different scenarios, we hope our readers find this coverage useful).
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years