March 31, 2020

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Quebec school board renounces federal funding for its Bill 21 court challenge

Quebec Premier Francois Legault speaks as the legislature resumes on Tuesday, February 4, 2020, at the Quebec legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Quebec Premier Francois Legault speaks as the legislature resumes on Tuesday, February 4, 2020, at the Quebec legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL - A Montreal school board on Thursday said it would renounce the money it was slated to receive from the federal government for a court challenge against Quebec's secularism law, hours after the premier said the funding was an insult to Quebecers.

The English Montreal School Board was granted funding from a federal program to contest Quebec's Bill 21, which forbids some public sector workers such as teachers from wearing religious symbols at work.

But when Quebec Premier Francois Legault heard about the money awarded to the EMSB, he demanded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intervene to stop the payment.

"Justin Trudeau is insulting Quebecers by financing a challenge against this law ... which is supported by a majority of Quebecers," Legault told reporters earlier in the day.

Hours later, the school board released a statement stating that while it applied for the funding, it hadn't yet received any federal money. The EMSB said it "renounced any funding it could receive from the Court Challenges Program."

But, the board said, that decision didn't effect its "resolve to see to an end" its challenge against Bill 21.

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.

Groups are chosen for funding by an expert panel that reports to the university, not the federal government. Trudeau repeated Thursday the program is independent and makes its own decisions.

But Legault said it was "unacceptable" that federal funds would go to fight against a duly passed law that represents the "will of the majority of Quebecers." Legault said the lawsuit against Bill 21 "is not like other suits."

"I agree we protect and help financially minority groups,"Legault told reporters, "but I don't accept that we sue, that the federal government finance a suit against a government."

The story was first reported by the Montreal Gazette, which stated the school board was entitled to up to $250,000 from the federal program for its two legal challenges — one against Bill 21 and another regarding school transfers.

Bill 21 is already being challenged in court by a national Muslim organization, a civil liberties group and a university student who wears the hijab, who claim the legislation is discriminatory and unconstitutional because it disproportionately affects Muslim women.

Trudeau has repeatedly said he doesn't agree with a government telling people how to dress, but has said the federal government would not intervene in any legal challenges at this stage.

Legault said he would review the EMSB's ability to sue.

In November, his government placed the school board in the province under trusteeship following a report that revealed the board had allegedly improperly awarded millions of dollars worth of public contracts and politicized its decision-making to the detriment of students.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2020.

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