OTTAWA — The Liberal government says no federal funds have been transferred to the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) to help pay for its court challenge against Quebec’s secularism law.
Debate over Bill 21 spilled onto the floor of the House of Commons Thursday, with Bloc Québécois MPs expressing their outrage over Quebecers’ tax dollars being allocated to fight provincial legislation.
Bloc MP Marie-Hélène Gaudreault said she had a problem with financial support from the Court Challenges Program (CCP) going to a public school board with a budget of more than $350 million.
“It’s supposed to help those who really need it. Not an organization that has a budget of $365 million dollars,” she said in French.
The CCP was originally established in 1978 but was cancelled in 2006. Resurrected in 2017, the program receives $5 million in annual funding from the federal heritage department. Its purpose is to “bring cases of national significance related to certain constitutional and quasi-constitutional official language and human rights before the courts,” according to the government.
Administered by the University of Ottawa, the program is independent from the government. Funding decisions are decided by two expert panels that report to the university.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodríguez responded to Gaudreault, suggesting that not all Quebecers support the law, which bans public sector workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, such as kippahs, crosses, hijabs, and turbans at work.
Critics of the law have raised concerns that it disproportionately affects visible minorities.
Bloc MPs called federal funding for a partisan lawsuit “unacceptable.”
Watch: Heritage minister explains sovereignty to Bloc during Bill 21 debate. Story continues below video.
Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault later stood up to correct the Bloc’s line of questioning, saying the EMSB did not receive the $250,000 it was approved for — the money was not transferred.
“I never thought I would have to rise in this Parliament to do this but I am going to talk about an important concept, which is independence,” Guilbeault said in French, making a jab at his sovereigntist party colleagues across the aisle.
He stressed the CCP acts independently of the government.
“Sovereignty means being able to do what you want and that also applies to the Court Challenges Program. It has Sovereignty,” he said, adding in French that “Separation, it means being divided from someone else.”
Bill 21 became law in June, and has strong support in the province. In December, despite acknowledging the law may cause serious and irreparable harm to some people, the Quebec Court of Appeal rejected a request to suspend parts of it in a 2-1 ruling.
In a statement Thursday, the school board confirmed its application for CCP funding was approved, but the money was never received. “No federal funding has been used to fund litigation by the EMSB against the Quebec government.”
The clarification comes shortly after Quebec Premier Francois Legault said he was outraged to learn about the federal money slated for the school board’s court challenge against the province’s secularism law.
Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters after question period that he thinks public pressure forced the school board to renounce money it had applied for.
“I am against the fact that the money from Quebec taxpayers is used against a law that has been adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec,” Blanchet said.
The English Montreal School Board said it will move forward with court action against the province, despite its decision to renounce extra funding for its case.
“Recent events do not affect the EMSB resolve to see to an end its important litigation attacking the constitutionality of Bill 21 and section 477.1.1 of the Education Act,” the school board said in its statement.