English Montreal School Board to launch legal challenge against Quebec French-language law

Another group has announced it will launch a legal challenge against Quebec's controversial language reform law.

Bill 96 was passed in the provincial legislature earlier this week.

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) announced late Thursday evening it has hired a legal firm to help it contest the validity of Bill 96, An Act Respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec.

"This bill affects us directly," said EMSB chairman Joe Ortona. "There are many provisions in this bill that violate our right to manage and control as a school board guaranteed by Section 23 of the charter... Any time that section 23 of the charter is threatened, I feel an obligation to defend those constitutional rights."

Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that Canadian citizens have "the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language (English or French) in that province."

Not all members of the council of commissioners were on board with the idea, however, as some voiced their opposition during a meeting Thursday night, citing the costs associated with the legal fight.

The EMSB said in a news release that Bill 96 violates the constitutional rights of Quebecers.

"I wish to invite other anglophone institutions and any organization interested in basic human rights to join or support this legal proceeding," said board chair Joe Ortona in the release.

The office of the Minister Responsible for the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barette, who is also the minister of justice, said it has known about the EMSB's position for "a long time," adding a jab at the school board for denying the existence of the Quebec nation last year.

The board later revoked the statement.

Jolin-Barette's office repeated its opinion that the law does not adversely affect any Quebecers' rights.

"Protecting and promoting French in Quebec is not discriminatory," said Jolin-Barette's press secretary Elisabeth Gosselin. "We are committed to defending Quebec's Common Official Language Act, French, a fundamental law for Quebecers."

As the Quebec government passed the bill in a 78-29 vote Tuesday, a committee of high-profile Quebec lawyers also revealed it is preparing to launch a legal challenge that could land all the way at the United Nations.

In an interview with CTV News this week, constitutional lawyer Julius Grey called the new law "the most gratuitous use of power I've ever seen."

For Grey, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms "becomes a mere suggestion" with the ruling CAQ government's repeated use of the notwithstanding clause to shield Bill 96 — as well as Bill 21 — from constitutional challenges.

The federal justice minister, David Lametti, also said this week his government is prepared to get involved in challenging the bill. "We will be there to deliver our arguments," if the bill reaches the Supreme Court of Canada, Lametti said.

The Legault government has said the legislation is needed to protect and promote French, which he says is declining in Quebec.

The law has come under fire for, among other things, granting new powers for the province's language watchdog to conduct searches and seizures without a warrant, requiring new immigrants to communicate with the government only in French after living in Quebec for six months, and capping enrolment at English-language CEGEPs. There are also concerns, even among the legal community, surrounding access to health care in English under the provisions of the legislation. 

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