Montreal school board to appeal Bill 21 ruling to Supreme Court of Canada

Click to play video: 'English Montreal School Board to ask Supreme Court of Canada to hear Bill 21 challenge'
English Montreal School Board to ask Supreme Court of Canada to hear Bill 21 challenge
Montreal's largest English school board is stepping up its legal fight with Quebec over the secularism law. The English Montreal School Board is bringing its case against the province's contentious Bill 21 in front of Canada's Supreme Court. Global's Brayden Jagger Haines reports. – Apr 11, 2024

Quebec’s largest English-language school board will move forward in its fight against the province’s controversial secularism law, known as Bill 21.

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) hopes the Supreme Court of Canada will hear its appeal after a vote by its council of commissioners Wednesday.

The move comes after Quebec’s Court of Appeal ruled in late February the law is constitutional and the lower court was wrong to exempt English school boards from it.

Bill 21 bars public sector workers in positions of authority — including teachers, judges, and police officers — from wearing religious symbols on the job. It was passed into law in June 2019.

“We maintain our original position that Bill 21 conflicts with our values and our mission and with those of all Quebecers as expressed in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms,” board chair Joe Ortona said in a statement.

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“Its very adoption was contrary to our societal goal of promoting our peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic Quebec.”

Quebec Premier François Legault has roundly defended Bill 21 over the years, saying it has support from the majority of Quebecers.

Click to play video: 'Bill 21 court decision will further discrimination, say Quebec minority groups'
Bill 21 court decision will further discrimination, say Quebec minority groups

Under the law, school boards cannot hire new teachers who wear religious symbols. The EMSB says the secularism legislation prevents it from hiring new staff during an ongoing teacher shortage.

Current employees who do wear religious symbols also cannot change jobs or advance in their careers, the school board added.

“Most importantly it sends a message of intolerance and exclusion to our students and their families,” Ortona said.

While 12 of the EMSB commissioners voted in favour of the motion to appeal the latest ruling, one voted against based on grounds of the mounting financial legal burden. So far, the board has spent $1.3 million on the court challenges over five years.

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Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said Thursday the provincial government is willing to defend its religious neutrality law in Canada’s highest court. He also questioned the EMSB’s use of public funds to challenge Bill 21.

“It’s really important for us that we will always defend Bill 21, which is an important law for Quebec society,” he told reporters at the provincial legislature.

“And we decided a long time ago that religion and state are separate in our society.”

Click to play video: 'Quebec Court of Appeal rules that secularism law known as Bill 21 is constitutional'
Quebec Court of Appeal rules that secularism law known as Bill 21 is constitutional

In February, the victory for the Quebec government on Bill 21 hinged on its pre-emptive use of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from most court challenges over violations of fundamental rights. An April 2021 Quebec Superior Court ruling had left the law largely intact, despite what the judge described as “serious and negative” impacts on people who wear religious symbols.

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Quebec’s lower court had also exempted English school boards from certain provisions of the law on the basis that minority language education rights — which aren’t covered by the Charter’s notwithstanding clause — weren’t respected. But the appellate court’s three-judge panel rejected that analysis.

The only aspect of Bill 21 that Quebec’s Appeal Court found to be a violation of the Charter was its ban on face coverings for members of the provincial legislature, affirming the lower court’s finding.

Meanwhile, the federal government has indicated that it would participate in a challenge to the law in Supreme Court.

“I invite the federal government to mind its own business,” Jolin-Barrette said. “This is a Quebec issue, this is a matter that was resolved in the national assembly of Quebec.”

The federal government, he said, should have more respect for Quebecers and the provincial legislature, whether on secularism or on immigration — a subject over which Quebec and Ottawa have butted heads in recent months.

—  with files from The Canadian Press

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