Quebec English School Boards Association speaks at Bill 21 hearings

In this file photo, the Quebec English School Board Association's Executive Director, Russell Copeman speaks in Quebec City on Tuesday May 14, 2019. Global News

The organization representing all English school boards (QESBA) along with the Association of Administrators of English Schools of Quebec (AAESQ) pleaded with the government to change its mind on Bill 21, saying it seeds discord.

Russell Copeman, QESBA’s executive director, said that in a time where there is a shortage of teachers, banning someone who has the qualifications and passion for the job makes no sense.

He added that having teachers from diverse backgrounds constitutes a strength in the education system and slammed the government for its proposal.

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The proposed bill would ban people in a position of authority in the public sector, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

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It fulfills an election promise that the Coalition Avenir Québec maintains has widespread support from across the province.

“The bill doesn’t reflect the values that we are asked to teach. Legislating to suspend individual rights shouldn’t be done based on [support] polls,” Copeman told Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s Immigration Minister and the author of the bill.

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The president of QESBA, Dan Lamoureux, added the government didn’t present enough proof that wearing religious symbols in and of itself influences the way anyone teaches in the Quebec school system.

Jolin-Barrette fired back by asking QESBA if the English school boards will apply the law once adopted. Copeman said he wouldn’t answer a hypothetical question and that it would be up to each school board to decide. In spite of being asked several times, QESBA maintained its response.

“I would’ve liked to hear ‘we will make sure the school boards apply the law once it’s passed’,” Jolin-Barrette told Copeman.

“I’m a little disappointed,” the minister said as he winked.

Two of the largest English school boards in the province, the Lester B. Pearson School Board and the English Montreal School Board, came out in opposition to the proposed legislation, vowing not to enforce the law if it passed.

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Jolin-Barrette then moved on to ask if the English school boards agreed that services in the education sector should be given and received while showing one’s face.

“It’s not a worry,” responded Sylvain Racette of the Association of Director Generals of English Schools of Quebec. “We’ve never heard any [issue] on this… Our students learn from other cultures and other religions.”

In its brief, the QESBA explained they hadn’t received a single complaint on the matter in the past 20 years.

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CAQ government defends Bill 21 despite opposition from Montreal

Copeman told the government that it was putting too much stock on appearances.

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“I’m the same person whether I wear my kippah or not. I have the same convictions, the same faith, the same principles,” Copeman said, while holding the religious garb he referred to in his hands.

“I act the same way. How does the kippah on my head change the situation? How does it become a threat in a school to have a teacher wearing a kippah?”

Ahead of its presentation, the group, in representation of English school boards, teachers, in-school and centre administrators, directors-general and parents, said that the religious symbols bill contradicts the constitutional right of Quebec’s English-speaking minority.

Invoking article 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights, which protects minority-language rights, QESBA claimed the government cannot take away its rights to hire people with religious symbols.

The group quoted the landmark 1990 Supreme Court of Canada Mahé v. Alberta2, which identifies “the recruitment and assignment of teachers and other personnel” as the “exclusive authority” of the minority language representatives.

The government included the notwithstanding clause in the legislation to avoid any legal challenges. However, Copeman explained that article 23 is not subject to the clause.

Jolin-Barrette replied that if the English school boards want to take the government to court over Bill 21, they can.

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The hearings will continue through Thursday.

— With files from Global’s Rachel Lau

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