The City of Toronto is being taken to court over its planned $100,000 contribution to support the legal challenge of Quebec’s Bill 21.
A notice of application filed to the Ontario Superior Court on Friday is challenging the validity of Toronto city council’s decision, arguing it is beyond its jurisdiction and doesn’t serve a municipal purpose. The lawsuit was launched by Toronto resident Louis Labrecque with backing from the Montreal-based group Justice pour le Québec, which supports the bill.
Bill 21 bans certain public servants from wearing visible religious symbols, such as hijabs and turbans, while on the job.
Mr. Labrecque’s legal counsel Asher Honickman, who specializes in issues of jurisdiction, said the case hinges on the legitimacy of Toronto council’s decision to spend money on a legal battle in another province and not the merits of Bill 21 itself.
“I’m not going to say I’m supportive of Bill 21 by any stretch, but the merits of Bill 21 are certainly not what influenced me to take on this case,” Mr. Honickman said in an interview. “For me, I see this case as being very much about jurisdiction and as a Torontonian, I don’t want my city spending money on things that don’t have to do with the city.”
Mr. Honickman pointed to other ways within the city’s jurisdiction in which it could support the legal challenge of Bill 21, such as providing financial compensation to residents who decide to leave Quebec and move to Toronto as a result of the effect of the legislation.
Since Bill 21 came into effect in June, 2019, elected officials from many municipalities across Canada have spoken out against the law. Toronto, Brampton and London have approved financial support of $100,000 each. Other cities, including Winnipeg, Kingston and Markham, followed suit with smaller amounts but only Toronto is facing a legal challenge so far.
The City of Toronto has yet to file a statement of defence and a hearing date hasn’t been set.
At the time Toronto’s motion to oppose Bill 21 passed unanimously in December, Mayor John Tory said council firmly supports freedom of religion and expression and is opposed to any legislation that would restrict or prohibit such freedoms.
“City council made it very clear that Toronto stands with municipalities from across Canada in opposition to Bill 21 and in support of the legal challenge against this bill,” Mr. Tory said. “We cannot simply stand by as Torontonians and Canadians and see a law like this diminish the protection and respect accorded religious and other basic freedoms by our Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms.”
The municipal funds from Toronto have yet to be sent to the parties opposing Bill 21 in courts. A challenge of Bill 21 is being brought to the Quebec Court of Appeal by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims. A portion of the law that governed English schools was struck down in court but that decision is also currently before the Court of Appeal and the law will remain in place while the case is being heard.
With Toronto’s proposed contribution now before the courts, Mr. Honickman said he will be requesting that the city not be allowed to send the money until his application is heard.
Frédéric Bastien, a member of the group behind the lawsuit against the City of Toronto, said that finding a lawyer in Ontario to take on the case was difficult because of the unpopularity of Bill 21 outside of Quebec
“Many, many lawyers wouldn’t touch this with a pole,” he said.
The legal principle behind their complaint is clear, Mr. Bastien argued. It is based on a 1994 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that invalidated a resolution by the City of Vancouver to boycott Shell products because the oil company did business with apartheid South Africa, on the grounds that municipalities only have the authority to act on issues that serve a municipal purpose.
“The question here isn’t whether you think Bill 21 is good, it’s bad, it’s evil. … It’s what can a municipality do with taxpayers’ money,” Mr. Bastien said.
The group also hopes that this complaint will stop other cities that have pledged to give funds to the legal challenge of Bill 21, he said.
Mr. Bastien, a former candidate for the leadership of the Parti Québécois and professor of history at Dawson College in Montreal, has been a vocal defender of Bill 21. Cities in the rest of Canada shouldn’t interfere in a legal process involving a Quebec law, he said.
“They should use their money to build roads. … This is simply none of their business.”
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