The Quebec government of François Legault pulled one of the more audacious parliamentary stunts in recent Canadian history last week, when it abolished all the school boards in the province with a stroke of the pen.
Premier Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec used its majority to invoke closure on Bill 40, a law that replaces traditional school boards with what are being called “service centres." It was a move hotly contested by teachers, parents and educational experts, not to mention the school boards themselves.
Invoking closure to limit debate on contentious legislation was bad enough, but the CAQ was just getting started. The party also tabled 160 last-minute amendments after there was no time left to debate, and then passed them into law, making it impossible to understand what the legislation’s full impact will be.
For instance, one 11th-hour change will allow the new service centres to expropriate any municipal property they might need for expansion, a development that has angered and alarmed mayors and councillors across the province.
Another amendment stripped elected French school-board commissioners of their mandates immediately, instead of at the end of February as originally planned. That has left the commissioners, and the association that represents them, powerless to mount a legal challenge to the new law.
This is rough stuff played by a Premier who has demonstrated more than once that he has no time for the complications of democracy; you know, tiresome and inconvenient things like parliamentary debate and court challenges.
Not that governments in other provinces and in Ottawa don’t sometimes resort to the brute force of closure to ram through legislation, but the CAQ has a particular fetish for it.
Bill 40 marked the fourth time the party has used the tactic since coming to power 16 months ago. That alone is remarkable, but even more noteworthy is the fact that three of the four bills in question affected vulnerable populations that the CAQ has targeted for political gain.
One was Bill 21, the law passed last March that bans religious symbols and clothing from being worn by many public employees, and which is an obvious strike at Muslim women who wear hijabs. The Legault government also invoked the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, to protect the discriminatory law from challenges based on its violation of such Charter rights as freedom of religion.
The government used closure again last June to push through an immigration reform that scrapped 18,000 existing immigration applications, forcing applicants to restart the arduous process. It will also give Quebec City more influence over who can become a permanent resident in the province, based on a vague “values test.”
And now it has used closure to pass a law that could undermine the constitutional right of Quebec’s English-language minority to run its own school boards, and deprives the suddenly non-existent French-language school boards of the ability to challenge the government in court.
The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) said this week that it is looking at the option of taking Bill 40 to court. English school commissioners still have their mandates, a recognition by the government that English boards have constitutional protections that can’t be brushed aside.
Meanwhile, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) is pressing ahead with a lawsuit against Bill 21, a law that it says forces it to practise gender discrimination by preventing it from hiring teachers who happen to wear a hijab, and also interferes with its right to govern itself.
That, no doubt, will infuriate Mr. Legault. He blew a gasket last week when he learned the EMSB was getting money from a federal program that funds groups and individuals that file lawsuits against governments related to language rights and human rights.
The EMSB is now in the position of having to ask the Quebec government for permission to apply for money it has the perfect right to accept, but that is life under Mr. Legault.
His Duplessis-like, government-knows-best style is reshaping a province where the targeting of vulnerable minorities seems to be rising in inverse proportion to the decline of the independence movement.
The merits and perils of Mr. Legault’s heavy-handed reforms will eventually become apparent. In the meantime, best not to argue about it with him. Just take him to court.