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Joe Ortona out as Ensemble Montreal candidate after EMSB document disputes Quebec nationhood

Joe Ortona speaks during an EMSB board meeting on Feb. 20, 2019. File / Global News

The head of Quebec’s largest school board, Joe Ortona, is out as a candidate for Ensemble Montréal in the upcoming municipal elections on Nov. 7.

The move comes after a document that challenges the province’s language reform bill and attacks the notion of Quebec nationhood was posted on the English Montreal School Board’s (EMSB) website on Tuesday.

Bill 96 was tabled in May by François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government, in a bid to protect and strengthen the French language in the province.

Read more: Quebec tables sweeping bill to reinforce and protect French language

The EMSB board has adopted a resolution calling on the Quebec government to withdraw Bill 96 in its current form and asking that the bill be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada to obtain a ruling on its legality.

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The EMSB contends the bill infringes on the rights of the English-speaking community and would limit access to public services, while also impacting education, employment and the way the legal system operates. The board also accuses the government of unilaterally rewriting the constitution to recognize Quebec as a nation where the only language is French.

The EMSB resolution, adopted at a regular council of commissioners meeting on Sept. 1, also refutes the idea of Quebec as a nation, citing retired McGill University professor Jon G. Bradley.

“Quebec is not a nation. It never has been. Its status is recognized by the United Nations as a province within the nation of Canada. Calling oneself something does not make it so and Quebec’s intelligentsia is deliberately misusing the word nation so as to imply a reality that exists only in their self-mirage,” the resolution reads.

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Ensemble Montréal, led by mayoral candidate Denis Coderre, wasted no time Tuesday distancing itself from the EMSB’s stance.

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“This is unacceptable. The protection of the French language is one of our fundamental values: we have demonstrated this publicly on several occasions, in particular with our request for the creation of a French Language Council, Coderre said in a news release.

“I recognize Quebec as a nation, just like our political party. The document from the English-Montreal school board, chaired by Mr. Ortona, goes completely against the values ​​of our party.”

The party said it had ejected Ortona from its caucus and that he was being replaced by Gabriel Retta as the party’s candidate for city councillor in the district of Loyola for the borough of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

The EMSB’s position also raised the ire of Premier François Legault.

Read more: ‘Inconceivable’: Quebec English School Board Association not included in hearings on language reform

“Even at the federal level they recognize that Quebec is a nation,” he told reporters during a COVID-19 press conference on Tuesday.

Legault went on to commend Coderre for taking swift action.

“I was happy to see Denis Coderre show the door to his candidate from the EMSB. I think they are disconnected. It’s as though the group has become radical,” Legault said of the EMSB.

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The Bloc Québécois also reacted Tuesday morning, and like Legault, leader Yves-François Blanchet pointed to federal recognition of Quebec nationhood.

Read more: Motion on Quebec nationhood, constitutional change gets green light from MPs

“The English Montreal School Board is attacking a motion supported by 281 of 338 MPs,” he said.

Later Tuesday afternoon, Ortona issued a statement saying he was “disappointed” both by Ensemble Montréal’s decision to drop him as a candidate and by the the reaction of some to the EMSB’s resolution.

Ortona said that in his work as a school board commissioner and later as chair of the EMSB he has always supported promoting the French language.

He touted the EMSB’s French immersion program as “second to none” and said the board had taken steps “to ensure to ensure our graduates are able to live and work in French.”

Ortona said the EMSB’s vision for Quebec is one of inclusivity and defended the board’s stance on Bill 96 and the province’s secularism law. The latter, known as Bill 21, bans some public sector workers, from wearing religious symbols while at work.

“Both bills pre-emptively use the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter, the statement reads.

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Ortona, however, admitted the board had “erred” when raising the question of Quebec nationhood.

“This concept is not at the heart of our opposition to Bill 96, and I will be recommending to my fellow commissioners that we modify our resolution and delete references to this matter,” he said.

Public hearings into Bill 96 will begin later this month at the National Assembly in Quebec City.

— with a file from The Canadian Press’ Patrice Bergeron

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