Quebec’s largest English-language school board has renounced $125,000 in federal funding to contest the province’s secular dress code after Premier François Legault accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “insulting” Quebeckers by allowing the funding.
The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) announced Thursday that it is walking away from the money authorized under the Court Challenges Program. Board spokesman Michael Cohen said “the political climate” made it untenable for the board to take the federal money.
“But the case is going to go ahead full steam. Now instead of using federal money we will be using our own budget, which largely comes from the province,” he said. Neither the program’s directors nor the Trudeau government asked the board to renounce the money, Mr. Cohen said.
Quebec’s law bans public servants in jobs the province describes as “positions of authority” from wearing religious dress on the job. While the ban covers symbols from several religions and a host of jobs, it has been mainly female Muslim teachers who have stepped forward to pursue several lawsuits against the law. The EMSB employs and recruits dozens of Muslim teachers.
The Legault government had assailed the school board and the federal government, saying they were improperly crossing jurisdictional boundaries and interfering with the democratic will of Quebeckers. Mr. Legault demanded Mr. Trudeau withdraw the funding, something the Prime Minister said he would not do. “It’s an independent program that is in no way managed by the federal government," Mr. Trudeau said.
The federal government finances the program, but a board of academics based at the University of Ottawa makes funding decisions for the $5-million-a-year program designed to help minorities defend their rights. The program’s board did not release reasons for providing funding.
“I think Justin Trudeau insults Quebeckers by financing a challenge to this law that bans religious signs that is supported by a majority of Quebeckers. Mr. Trudeau can’t hide behind the independence of the program,” Mr. Legault told reporters Thursday at the National Assembly before the board dropped its funding. “It’s a federal program. The government can constrain its institutions.”
After the board walked away from the money, Simon Jolin-Barrette, the provincial cabinet minister who introduced the religious dress law, continued the critique of the federal Liberal government. “The Trudeau government should have withdrawn funding for this challenge itself. It’s completely unacceptable that the federal government indirectly finance an attack on secularism. It won’t do it directly, it shouldn’t do it directly, either,” he said.
In last fall’s federal election, Mr. Legault demanded party leaders commit to staying out of court challenges to Quebec’s religious dress code. Mr. Trudeau has refused to commit and has been repeatedly criticized by Mr. Legault and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet.
Mr. Blanchet called the Court Challenges Program funding illegitimate, questioning why the school board, which has a $350-million budget, would qualify for assistance. He also said Ottawa is using tax money partly collected in Quebec to constrain the province’s democratic will. In 2006, the Bloc Québécois defended the program, which Franco-Ontarians used in 1997 to save the French-language Monfort hospital, which was facing a shutdown at the hands of the Ontario government.
Over the years, French-language minorities, same-sex-marriage advocates and Indigenous groups have used the program to protect their rights before the courts.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa.
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