School board association could fight Quebec's education bill, with federal help

QUEBEC — The association representing Quebec's English-language school boards has been granted federal money to challenge a major Quebec education-reform bill, its vice-president says, days after its largest member renounced similar money under criticism from Premier Francois Legault.

"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," Noel Burke said in an interview.

Besides being vice-president of the nine-member Quebec English School Boards Association, Burke chairs the Lester B. Pearson School Board, which oversees English-language schools on the western half of the island of Montreal.

On a 60-35 vote, Bill 40 became the fourth piece of legislation Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec has rammed through the legislature using a process known as closure, cutting discussion short and forcing a vote.

The legislation transforms school boards across the province into so-called service centres. It abolishes elections for board commissioners in the French-language system, replacing them with appointed members.

Burke said Saturday his association's lawyers had already advised that Bill 40 is unconstitutional. But they hadn't yet reviewed the last-minute amendments included in the final version of the bill, he said.

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 elections for members of the newly created service centres covering the English-language schools, in keeping with the minority language and schooling rights outlined in the Constitution.

Possible challenges to the bill and how they'll be paid for have been the subject of angry debate in the past week.

The English Montreal School Board, which covers schools on the eastern half of the island of Montreal, had been granted money from the Court Challenges Program, an independent non-profit run out of the University of Ottawa funded with federal money. It provides financial support to groups bringing human-rights or language-related cases of national significance before the courts.

Besides $125,000 to fight the education-reform bill, the English Montreal School Board has been granted $125,000 to fight Bill 21, Quebec's secularism law.

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.

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 also said he would review the board's authority to challenge the province in court.

Burke confirmed 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 actually received any money from the Court Challenges Program, he said.

Francis Bouchard, spokesman for Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge, echoed the premier's comments in an email Saturday.

"We reiterate that it is unacceptable that federal funds be used to challenge laws duly passed by the elected officials of the National Assembly of Quebec," he said.

"Education is an exclusively provincial jurisdiction. The federal government must respect the choices made by Quebecers and must not do indirectly what it does not do directly."

Another school-board association, which represents the French-language system, said this week it plans to challenge the bill. But the Federation des commissions scolaires du Quebec is unlikely to be eligible for federal money because it doesn't represent a minority-language community in the province.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2020.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press