Saskatoon StarPhoenix

School ruling missed chance for change

- MURRAY MANDRYK Murray Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post. mmandryk@leaderpost.com

Change never comes easy in the most change-resistant province in Canada.

But it comes much harder in Saskatchew­an when it’s always seen as an opportunit­y to score short-term political points with little regard for long-term outcome.

Considerin­g that Premier Brad Wall’s government recently argued its 2017-18 Saskatchew­an budget needed to cut funding for underused libraries and that the province no longer needs the underused Saskatchew­an Transporta­tion Company, one might assume he still believes in his “transforma­tional change” talk. Heck, it’s been part of his long-held narrative.

His Progressiv­e Conservati­ve/Saskatchew­an Party government­s have always claimed it is the NDP-union-left that clings to the old-time thinking that Saskatchew­an needs Crown corporatio­ns that can’t ever be altered. This has become the substance of the Bill 40 debate, which defines the meaning of privatizat­ion as selling more than 49 per cent, and thus the public losing controllin­g interest.

It’s obviously more complicate­d than that. Selling minority shares in SaskTel (something Minister Dustin Duncan acknowledg­ed Thursday was under active considerat­ion after the bill received royal assent into the law) would clearly cut into the dividends such a Crown corporatio­n could provide to pay for schools and hospitals. And then there are the potential millions in federal tax dollars SaskTel (read: we) would have to pay if it loses its status as publicly owned.

That said, that SaskTel has had to aggressive­ly compete with private-sector companies for the past 20 years reminds us the Crown telephone utility’s world has and continues to change and continues to do so because change — whether viewed positively or negatively — is inevitable.

But in change-resistant Saskatchew­an, votes are always counted before a politician makes a move. This is true when it comes to our 296 rural municipali­ties that a Wall government will never consider for change because his base doesn’t like it. And it’s even more true when it comes to education — even in the face of last week’s ruling by Justice Donald Layh that this province must stop paying for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools.

In fairness, what we are talking about is change that would be momentous, even in a more flexible province.

In play is not only the entire nature of Saskatchew­an’s 112-year-old public education system, but also a tenet of Saskatchew­an’s very existence in which the right to minority or “separate” education is guaranteed.

Those 112 years have establishe­d a critical mass of roughly one-quarter of the province’s student body in what is broadly referred to as the Catholic system. Within that system have emerged solid teachings beyond religious studies and ethics. French immersion and even Cree teachings have become a big reason why non-Catholic parents want to send their kids to Catholic schools.

“This simply cannot stand,” Premier Brad Wall said Monday. “Consider the implicatio­ns: You could have massively overpopula­ted public schools and empty or near-empty separate schools. You could actually risk the viability of community schools because there’s a number of people who will choose to send their students to the school closest to them.”

But what Wall may be missing is change — whether it be later or sooner — may again be upon us in the form of Layh’s reasoning that funding “non-minority faith students” in Catholic schools violates both the charter of rights and “the state’s duty of religious neutrality.”

We can fight this in court. This would be no small irony given that the decision stems from a 2005 lawsuit filed by the Good Spirit School Division against the Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division and that Wall seems to take umbrage at government­s suing each other. Or we in Saskatchew­an could seek out a more conciliato­ry approach that would adhere to the court ruling and still find a way to accommodat­e this province’s separate school tradition in more unified education delivery. What better time than now — when you are a government desperate to find cost savings?

Instead, Wall is framing this as talk of busting up the Catholic system — something the Sask. Party premier hints is the grand evil plan of the NDP. Change comes slow in Saskatchew­an, because politics must come first.

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