Separate School Divisions

Separate school divisions in Saskatchewan are publicly funded school divisions whose mandate is to provide religious and general education to members of the Christian community of the province. Members of the faith concerned (either Protestant or Catholic) are constitutionally guaranteed a right to denominational schooling and are entitled to establish a separate school system centred on the teachings of their faith. In Saskatchewan, the separate school divisions are primarily Catholic, although Protestant separate school divisions do exist. There are currently fourteen Catholic separate school boards in the province. These school boards educate over 37,000 students from kindergarten to grade twelve. The distinctive mission of Catholic school boards and schools emanates a commitment to integrating the faith into all aspects of Catholic schooling.

The separate school concept was established in Ontario in the 1840s, when a compromise was reached that provided for the right to denominational schooling for the Ontario Catholic community. These rights were later to be enshrined in the British North America Act of 1867 (later called the Constitution Act); the guarantee of minority denominational schooling rights was one of the most contentious issues in Confederation.

Church-run schools in Saskatchewan were established shortly after the arrival of the first European settlers. In 1875, The Northwest Territories Act was passed, representing the first time that schools were established by law in the Territories. The Act provided for separate schools that were to be publicly funded through the property tax. Over the next few years, governors of the North-West Territories developed the policies that would lay the foundations for schools. The Ordinance Providing for the Organization of Schools in the North West Territories was passed in 1884; Section 29 of the Ordinance established that Protestant and Catholic public and separate schools were to be protected. The role of the separate schools became an issue in the negotiations with the federal government over provincial status; education, and particularly the status of denominational rights and schooling, was the main issue for discussion between the government of the North-West Territories and the federal government.

The Saskatchewan Act was passed in 1905, allowing for schools to remain essentially as they were before the province entered Confederation. This Act reaffirmed the status of separate schools and the right to denominational schooling as set out in the Constitution Act of 1867; it provided that Catholic elementary schools (grades one to eight) were to be funded in the same manner as public schools. Subsequently, in 1907, the Secondary School Act was passed; this legislation outlined the processes for establishing high schools, but there were no provisions in the Act for the establishment of separate high schools.

The period from 1910 up until World War I saw the establishment of many Catholic separate school districts. Starting in 1918, however, there was considerable pressure applied to Premier Scott to eliminate separate schools in the province. Separate schools came under attack once again in the 1930s. The Conservatives, under Premier J.T.M. Anderson, enacted legislation that prohibited French as a language of instruction and prohibited the wearing of religious garments and the display of religious symbols in public schools (often referred to as the “garb and symbol” law). These pieces of legislation were thinly veiled attempts to control the expansion of Catholic education in Saskatchewan.

The period of 1950 to 1962 saw unprecedented growth of Catholic separate schools in Saskatchewan, with nine new Catholic separate school divisions being established. In 1951, the Catholic Section of the Saskatchewan School Trustees' Association was established. This group was charged with representing the interests of the Catholic school boards and schools in the province. Although there were six new Catholic separate school divisions established in the 1960s, three of them did not survive and were disestablished before the beginning of the 1970s. In 1964, the right to local taxation and government grants was extended to Catholic high schools, allowing many existing private denominational high schools to be absorbed into existing Catholic separate school divisions. No new separate school divisions were established in the 1970s or 1980s. In 1978 the Education Act was passed, affirming the provisions for denominational schooling and instituted procedures for the establishment of Protestant and Catholic separate school divisions and schools.

Paul M. Newton

Further Reading

McDonough, K. 2003. “Saskatchewan.” Pp. 13-19 in J.J. Flynn (ed.), Catholic Schools Across Canada: Into the New Millennium. Toronto: Canadian Catholic School Trustees' Association.