The English Montreal School Board says it will not take the $250,000 it was offered by the federally backed Court Challenges Program to fight two Quebec laws that the board contends go against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a statement Thursday, the EMSB says it did apply to the program, administered by the University of Ottawa, to challenge the province’s controversial secularism law, known as Bill 21, as well as a section of the Education Act.
The board says its applications were approved, however, to date it has not received the funds it sought, and now it is renouncing them altogether.
Even if it is turning down a quarter of a million dollars, the EMSB isn’t throwing in the towel in its fight against the two laws: one that bars teachers and other civil servants from wearing religious symbols, and the other, a provision in the Education Act that allows the province to force one school board to transfer buildings to another, as happened last summer.
“Recent events do not affect the EMSB’s resolve to see to an end its important litigation attacking the constitutionality of Bill 21 and section 477.1.1 of the Education Act,” the EMSB said in its statement.
The EMSB’s announcement that it’s renouncing the legal funds comes the day after Quebec politicians slammed the use of federal tax dollars to fight provincial laws.
On Thursday morning, Premier François Legault called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to prevent the Court Challenges Program from funding lawsuits brought against the province.
“I think Justin Trudeau is insulting Quebecers by financing a court challenge of the law that bans religious symbols, which is supported by a majority of Quebecers,” Legault told reporters in Quebec City.
“I’m asking Justin Trudeau to ensure that this financing is not provided to contest the law.”
Legault was unbothered by the fact that although the Court Challenges Program is funded by the federal government, it operates at arm’s length: It is administered by the University of Ottawa, and an independent panel of experts decides which cases receive funding.
“It is a decision of an independent organization. We are not responsible for what they do,” Trudeau said Thursday, repeating the response he gave Wednesday.
Legault accused Trudeau of “hiding” behind the program’s autonomy.
Program funds language rights cases
The program, which the federal Liberals restored in 2017 after it was cut by the Conservatives in 2006, has two different funding streams: one for language rights and another for human rights cases.
The EMSB was to have received funding through the language rights stream, according to documents seen by CBC News.
The school board’s lawsuit argues the secularism law is unconstitutional because, among other things, it violates Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That section protects minority language education rights.
In documents filed before Quebec Superior Court, the EMSB says Bill 21 hinders the vitality of the English-speaking community by preventing school boards from hiring teachers who wear religious symbols.
Though the Court Challenges Program doesn’t publicize who has received funding, an annual report from last year indicates it has funded similar challenges in the past.
These include a case challenging a 2016 decision in New Brunswick to close a French-language school.
Legault did not suggest the federal government block funding for other language-based cases. He did, however, demand Ottawa alter the framework of the challenges program so that the EMSB would get nothing.
The premier also didn’t rule out exploring other avenues to prevent the EMSB from bringing its case forward.
“We’ll see if we have options,” Legault said. “But essentially what is shocking is that Justin Trudeau is giving $125,000 to English Montreal [School Board] to sue the Quebec government.”
Legault said that “didn’t make sense” because the law has the support of the “Québécois nation.”
Bill 21 is facing three other constitutional challenges. All are likely to be heard together at a trial this fall.