Bill 21 won't apply to us, Quebec's English school boards say

An organization representing all nine of Quebec's English school boards says the province's proposed ban on religious symbols can't be imposed on them, potentially opening a new front in the legal resistance to the legislation.

Like some of their French counterparts, English schools boards have already made clear their opposition to a provision in Bill 21 that would bar public teachers and principals from wearing headgear such as the hijab, turban or kippa. 

The English Montreal School Board has even stated it has no intention of enforcing the eventual law.

At a news conference Tuesday in Quebec City, the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) added another dimension to their opposition.

Invoking minority-language rights upheld by various Supreme Court decisions, QESBA claimed to have exclusive authority over a wide range of educational decisions. 

"Quebec cannot impose a prohibition of religious symbols worn by teachers and principals in the English public school network," Russell Copeman, former Liberal Party MNA who heads the association, said prior to testifying at the Bill 21 hearings.

"We are committed to promoting the values of openness, tolerance and mutual understanding that are so crucial to our society."

'A serious legal argument'

Copeman pointed in particular to a 1990 high court decision, Mahé v. Alberta. In that decision, the Supreme Court found the Constitution guarantees minority language parents should have control over the children's schools.

QESBA is focusing in particular on the following passage from the decision: "minority language representatives should have exclusive authority to make decisions relating to the minority language instruction and facilities, including: recruitment and assignment of teachers and other personnel."

In Copeman's reading, that means the Quebec government doesn't have say over the staffing decisions of English school boards.

"We're hoping that the government will look at this argument — it's a serious legal argument, it's backed up jurisprudence — and will come to the same conclusion that we have to come to, which is that Bill 21 cannot apply to the English public education network," he said.

Copeman said the notwithstanding clause, which the CAQ government included in the bill to fend off potential legal challenges, doesn't apply to Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects English-speaking minorities in Quebec.

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Premier François Legault showed no signs of backing down, saying English school boards will not be exempt.

"How can anglophones say they are not part of Quebec? They are part of Quebec. And if we decide there are no religious signs for people in an authority position, of course it applies to anglophones," he said. 

"The bill has been reviewed by people legally — it's legal."

Legault wants to adopt Bill 21 by mid-June.