Legault calls EMSB 'radical group' for denying Quebec nationhood; board chair pays political price
MONTREAL -- Quebec’s premier suggested Tuesday that the English Montreal School Board has become a “radical group,” condemning a board document that came to light denying Quebec’s nationhood.
However, the board’s chair, who is also running to be a city councillor, paid a more personal price in the political firestorm.
Chair Joe Ortona was kicked off the slate of municipal party Ensemble Montreal over the document, which calls for the withdrawal of the latest provincial language law while making some more controversial statements in the process.
The details of the document were first published by the Journal de Montreal, including a citation from a McGill professor that declares, in the professor’s words, that “Quebec is not a ‘nation.’ It never has been.”
The EMSB later released the full written document—a resolution from a board meeting on Sept. 1—and confirmed its bigger intention to ask Ottawa to challenge Bill 96, this year’s update to language law Bill 101, before the Supreme Court.
The pushback, especially to the words around nationhood, was swift, though Ortona agreed with the critics on Tuesday that that quote should have been omitted.
'A RADICAL GROUP'
Mayoral candidate Denis Coderre dropped Ortona as a candidate representing Ensemble Montreal, for whom he been running in Loyola. He said Ortona’s position is unacceptable and goes against the party’s values.
Premier François Legault went even further when asked about the issue during a daily COVID-19 press conference.
“Listen, I think that these words are completely disconnected from reality… even the federal government recognizes that Quebec is a nation,” said Legault.
“I was happy to see Denis Coderre show the door to his candidate that came from the English Montreal School Board, but I think that they are disconnected,” the premier said.
“It's almost as if that particular group had become a radical group.”
The English Montreal School Board, which oversees more than 44,000 students, is the biggest of Quebec’s nine English-language school boards.
The problematic words on nationhood, two paragraphs of the document, were attributed to retired McGill education professor Jon G. Bradley.
“Calling oneself something does not make it so and Quebec's intelligentsia is deliberately misusing the word "nation" so as to imply a reality that exists only in their self-mirage,” the quote said.
“The only precise word to use regarding Quebec's reality is ‘province,’” Bradley said, before going on to question the entire idea of collective rights in a political sense, as opposed to in labour bargaining.
POLITICIANS UNITE AGAINST EMSB
Other politicians chimed in, with Parti Québécois leader Pierre St-Paul Plamondon slamming that passage.
“It's just so disrespectful,” he said. “It's not even a conversation about ‘How do you balance the proportion of Francophones and Anglophones, what measures should be appropriate.’”
The PQ is “open to discussion,” he said, “but that's not a conversation, that's contempt, pure contempt.”
The Bloc Québécois, on the election trail, changed its strategy Tuesday around the news, with leader Yves-François Blanchet speaking from the steps of the Supreme Court in Ottawa and calling the EMSB’s document an “insult.”
Federally speaking, the motion recognizing Quebec as a nation is not controversial, Blanchet said. The EMSB "is attacking a motion supported by 281 out of 338 MPs," he said.
He also asked Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau and Conservative candidate Erin O'Toole to formally commit not to challenge Bill 96 if either of them form the next federal government.
BILL 96 NEEDS CHALLENGING, BOARD MAINTAINS
Ortona said Tuesday that the board shouldn’t have included those statements in its motion to challenge Bill 96 and he’ll recommend they be deleted.
“While we have concerns about the proposed constitutional amendment, we erred in bringing into question that Quebec is a nation,” he wrote in a statement.
However, “while we do not argue with the concept” of Quebec being a nation, he wrote, “we do want to ensure that English-speaking Quebecers are considered integral to the nation.”
The idea also was never integral, in any case, to the nuts and bolts of what the EMSB wants to challenge in court, Ortona wrote. He takes issue with both Bill 96 and Bill 21, the religious symbols bill, which he said don’t allow for the kind of diversity the EMSB wants in its schools.
Bill 96 would further limit access to English schools for families temporarily working in Quebec, restrict English in the legal system, would allow more language-related search and seizures without warrants, and would restrict access to Quebec’s colleges, he wrote.
ORTONA MAY CONTINUE TO RUN AS INDEPENDENT
The board will continue to oppose the bill, Ortona wrote. Personally speaking, he said he’s not sure if he’ll continue to run in Loyola as an independent.
“I am disappointed by the reaction of some to the resolution… and by the decision of Ensemble Montreal to not allow me to be a candidate under its banner in the upcoming municipal election,” Ortona wrote.
He said he’s supported the promotion of French at the EMSB and is “proud” to help train its graduates to live and work in French, adding that “our French immersion program is second to none.”
“As for my candidacy in the Loyola district, it was not by accident that I chose to run there,” he said.
“My reputation as a defender of English rights was well known by Ensemble Montréal. Many supporters want me to stay in the race as an independent and I am now in reflection where that is concerned.”
Quebec Liberal leader Dominique Anglade said on Tuesday she does recognize Quebec as a nation but that she’s gearing up for Bill 96 hearings this fall and will keep English-speakers in mind.
“One thing that is clear for us is… making sure that we respect the access to services to the English community,” she said.
“This is the principle that's going to be guiding us when we go through the study of the bill.”
--With files from CTV's Matt Grillo and from The Canadian Press