School board association likely to sue Quebec over education bill — with federal fund

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

An association representing Quebec’s English-language school boards says it will likely sue the provincial government over an education reform bill that was adopted early Saturday morning, and the group has already been granted $125,000 in federal funds to do so.

Earlier in the week, Premier François Legault strongly denounced the fact the English Montreal School Board had been granted up to $250,000 in federal funding to bring court challenges against his government. The EMSB had applied for money from the Court Challenges Program for the board’s battle against the province’s secularism legislation and against another section of law governing school transfers.

Faced with opposition from the premier, the EMSB renounced the money Thursday and said “no federal funding” had been used to pay for litigation against the Quebec government. Legault had also said he would review the board’s ability to sue.

But federal funds will almost certainly be used to take Legault’s government to court over its education reform law, known as Bill 40, which was adopted Saturday and which abolishes school boards and immediately kicks many elected commissioners out of their jobs.

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A well-placed source within the Quebec English School Boards Association said Saturday that the organization — which represents the EMSB — will likely sue the government over the bill. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the association’s legal team had not fully reviewed the text of Bill 40.

Noel Burke, QESBA vice-president and chair of the English-language Lester B. Pearson School Board, said on Saturday his association’s lawyers had already advised that Bill 40 is unconstitutional. But lawyers hadn’t yet reviewed the last-minute amendments included in the final version of the bill, he said.

“The decision to actually engage in a court challenge will be taken in the next week or so, after our legal counsel reviews the final stage of the bill,” he said in an interview.

Burke also confirmed that the QESBA had applied for $125,000 in federal funding for a possible court action against Bill 40, a request he said was granted before Christmas. The association has not yet received any money from the program, he said.

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The Court Challenges Program of Canada is an independent non-profit run out of the University of Ottawa. It provides financial support to groups bringing human rights or language-related cases of national significance before the courts.

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Another school board association, which represents the French-language system, said this week it planned to sue the government over Bill 40. But the Federation des commissions scolaires du Quebec will unlikely be eligible for federal money because it doesn’t represent a minority language community in the province.

Legault said earlier in the week that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “insulting Quebecers” because money from the court program had been earmarked to challenge Bill 21, which forbids some public sector workers such as teachers from wearing religious symbols at work.

A request for comment from the premier’s office regarding possible legal action against Bill 40 was not immediately returned Saturday.

READ MORE: English Montreal School Board placed under partial trusteeship

With 60 votes in favour, 35 against and no abstentions, Bill 40 became the fourth piece of legislation the Coalition Avenir Québec has rammed through the legislature using closure.

The legislation transforms school boards across the province into so-called service centres, and abolishes elections for board commissioners in the French-language system, who will be replaced with appointed members.

A last-minute amendment to the bill eliminated a transition period for elected commissioners in the French-language school boards, immediately kicking them out of their posts.

The bill permits the English-language system to elect members of its newly created service centres, in keeping with the minority language and schooling rights outlined in the Constitution.


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