OTTAWA - Canada's top court ruled Friday that the B.C. government and a North Vancouver school district discriminated against a severely dyslexic boy by failing to accommodate his disability.
In its 9-0 decision, the court criticized the school district and province for closing a diagnostic centre for special-needs students without ensuring there was a sufficient alternative in place.
The Supreme Court of Canada overruled two lower courts, arguing the purpose of the B.C. School Act is to ensure all students develop their potential and the skills they need to contribute to the economy and society.
"This is an acknowledgement by the government that the reason children are entitled to an education is that a healthy democracy and economy require their educated contribution," wrote Justice Rosalie Abella.
"Adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia."
The human-rights challenge dates back 15 years, when Rick Moore, the father of Jeffrey Moore, who has a severe learning disability, filed a complaint against the provincial government and the school district after they shut the diagnostic centre down for budgetary reasons.
Jeffrey's parents decided to pull their son, then in Grade 3, from public school and pay for private education to ensure his special needs were met.
The Moores' lawyer, Frances Kelly, said Friday the ruling means schools boards and education ministries across Canada can't view special education "as a frill."
"This confirms these kids have a right to general education," she said. "In times of restraint they have to be careful what they cut: They can't just go to special-needs services and cut those first without doing an adequate investigation as to whether that is truly their only option."
The Supreme Court judges argued the school district should have done more to consider the consequences of closing the centre, despite the financial pressures it was facing.
"The failure to consider financial alternatives completely undermined the District's argument that it was justified in providing no meaningful access to an education for (Jeffrey) because it had no choice," Abella said.
"In order to decide that it had no choice, it had at least to consider what those other choices were,"
A spokesperson for the North Vancouver School District said they respect the ruling and are reviewing the decision to see what it will ultimately mean to the district.
The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal upheld Moore's complaint, but the family lost twice on appeal.