Speaking Notes Joe Ortona Win Speech: April 20, 2021

joe ortona
Montreal - Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Thank you for being with us today.

Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the presence on this call of some members of the EMSB Council of Commissioners.

  • Pietro Mercuri
  • Mubina Mughal
  • Julien Feldman
  • Joseph Lalla
  • Jamie Fabian
  • Mario Pieterangelo
  • Tony Speranza
  • Mario Bentrovato

Also joining me now is Furheen Ahmad, a teacher at Westmount High School who has been one of our most eloquent spokespersons on this issue.

We are elated with the Quebec Superior Court’s decision to strike down key provisions of Bill 21, An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State. This decision is specific to all English language school boards based on Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Our position has always been that Bill 21 conflicted with our values and our mission and with those of all Quebecers as expressed in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Its very adoption was contrary to our societal goal of promoting our peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic and inclusive Quebec.

We argued successfully that Section 23 guarantees minority language educational rights to English-speaking minorities in Quebec, including the exclusive right of management and control of minority language schools. 

Section 23 has evolved through the years and successive decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada have recognized an exclusive right of management and control accorded to linguistic minority communities across Canada for the operations of their public school systems.

For this reason we urge the Quebec government to refrain from appealing the judgement.

Pour comprendre la décision rendue aujourd’hui, il faut remonter à octobre 2019, mois au cours duquel la CSEM s’est jointe au Conseil national des musulmans canadiens, à l’Association canadienne des libertés civiles, aux enseignants et enseignantes qui portent un signe religieux et à la Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, qui est un syndicat d’enseignants et d’enseignantes, dans la contestation de la validité de la loi 21 devant la Cour supérieure du Québec. La loi 21 est entrée en vigueur le 16 juillet 2019 et a empêché les enseignants et enseignantes des écoles publiques, les avocats et avocates travaillant pour l’État, les juges et les policiers et policières de porter un signe religieux au travail.

We have seen the negative impact of Law 21 on our staff and on the culture in our schools and centres. The Law is forcing individuals to choose between government employment and a desire to wear religious apparel. We have had to refuse employment to some qualified candidates and promotions for others. And of course, many have simply not applied.

Most importantly it sends a message of intolerance and exclusion to our students and their families. We hope that this court decision ends the discussion once and for all. It has already caused significant damage to the careers of many individuals.

We value the diversity of our students and staff and respect their personal and religious rights which are guaranteed both by the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights. This legislation runs contrary to what we teach and to the culture of respect for individual rights and religious freedoms within English-language schools. Moreover, a religious symbol worn by a teacher in no way affects their ability to provide quality education in a secular state, within a secular education system and in the classrooms of public schools administered by the EMSB.

Our challenge to Bill 21 was also based on gender discrimination, prohibited under section 28 of the Canadian Charter. Rather than promoting gender equality, Bill 21 had the opposite effect.  Due to the preponderance of women working in Quebec schools, the law is having a disproportionate effect on them, particularly well-educated Muslim women with university teaching degrees whose role in public life was restricted. Bill 21 was an attempt to solve a non-existent problem, and we are frustrated that the Court did not rule in our favour in this regard. 

La décision rendue aujourd’hui constitue néanmoins un gain décisif pour la minorité anglophone du Québec et pour les minorités francophones de l’ensemble du Canada. We have demonstrated time and time again during the COVID-19 pandemic how critical it is to have full operational control of our public school system and we are grateful that the Quebec Superior Court has ruled in our favour.