Nobody turns down government money. At least, nobody did until this week, when the English Montreal School Board became the anti-Bombardier. After applying for a government handout and getting it, the EMSB said, “eh, on second thought, we’ll pass.”
The change of heart was sudden. On Wednesday, the Montreal Gazette reported that the federal Court Challenges Program had accepted the board’s application for funding to help pay for its case against Quebec’s anti-hijab law, Bill 21, and granted it $125,000.
It had also awarded the EMSB a second grant of $125,000 to fight Quebec’s seizure of some of the board’s half-empty schools to ease overcrowding in the French-language system.
The program provides funding for cases involving constitutional rights. It’s financed by the federal government, but is politically independent, administered by the University of Ottawa, its decisions on funding applications made by expert panels.
After the program was cancelled in 2006 by the former Harper Conservative government, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised in the 2015 general election to reinstate it, and his government did so in 2017.
When the news broke, the EMSB defended its application. But the next day, it issued a press release announcing, tersely and without explanation, that while it had a right to apply for the money, it had “renounced” it anyway.
What happened in between? Trudeau had come under attack from Quebec-nationalist politicians in Quebec City and Ottawa over federal money being used to fight a popular Quebec identity law.
The nationalists accused Trudeau of hiding behind the court challenges program to do indirectly what he lacks the courage to do directly.
While Trudeau has criticized the anti-hijab law as discriminatory, he has refused to have his government join court challenges of its constitutionality, at least in their early stages.
- EMSB renounces $250,000 in federal funds for legal challenges
- Quebec slams Ottawa over funding for Bill 21 challenge
He has also declined to use his government’s power to refer the legislation immediately to the Supreme Court, where it will inevitably end up anyway after years of working its way through the lower courts.
In an email exchange with board spokesperson Michael Cohen, when I asked whether the EMSB had caved in to political pressure, he answered evasively.
“We decided that, given the current political climate, it was not in the interest of the English community” to accept the federal funding, he said. He declined to elaborate, but he was apparently referring to the nationalist reaction.
This raises some questions.
How could anybody who knows anything about Quebec politics have failed to anticipate the predictable reaction to news that an English-language school board would receive federal funds to fight Bill 21?
How could they expect that nationalists would be satisfied with the board’s turning down money from Ottawa for that fight, when it said it would continue it with money it receives from Quebec?
And how is it in the interest of the English-speaking community for the EMSB to refuse grants totalling a quarter of a million dollars for court battles the board intends to pursue without them?
EMSB spokesperson Cohen said the board had budgeted for the court cases without the federal funding. But the grants would have allowed the board to save $250,000 from its legal fund and use that money for its schools.
Would teachers and parents agree that the board can afford to pass up a quarter of a million dollars? Are conditions in its schools that good?
In fact, the EMSB’s self-humiliating cave-in in response to what its spokesperson called “the political climate” is in the interest of only one person. That’s Trudeau, who wants to stay out of the fight over Bill 21.
And while the Quebec independence movement is dormant, the argument that “this will help the separatists” still triggers post-traumatic stress disorder in anglo referendum veterans.
The EMSB responded with what amounts to a political bailout of Trudeau that cost it a quarter of a million dollars. The least he could do is send it a thank-you note.