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Judge stays parts of Bill 96 to allow the use of English in school board communications

A ruling issued by a Quebec Superior Court judge on April 10 has suspended certain provisions of the province’s language charter that required English school board written communications be issued exclusively in French.

In a 38-page decision, Justice Suzanne Courchesne stayed six articles of Bill 96 relating to communication, contracts, and the provision of services. These provisions required, among other things, that English School Boards communicate only in French when interacting with English-speaking groups and community organizations, including the Quebec English School Boards Association and the English Parents’ Committee Association of Quebec.

The English Montreal School Board, which requested the stay of proceedings last November, is also behind a legal challenge to the constitutionality of Bill 96. The board argued that the suspension of several provisions would prevent the organization from undergoing irreparable harm while the court weighs the legal challenge to the language legislation.

Courchesne states in her decision that, “Clearly, the prohibition on English school boards using English in their written communications, contracts, and services with partners from the minority language community, in the majority of situations, causes them serious and irreparable harm.”

The ruling does include an exception for situations where the partner or co-contractor of the school board requires the use of the official French language.

The stay extends to all English school boards and will remain in place until a judgement is issued by the court on Bill 96.

John Ryan, the chair of the New Frontiers School Board Council of Commissioners, says those involved with the constitutionality lawsuit expect the legal battle may drag on. The NFSB was granted intervenor status in the EMSB’s request for the stay, along with the Quebec English School Boards Association and six other English school boards.

“It appears to be a common-sense judgement,” says Ryan, who suggests the ruling is “another piece that supports the arguments we have been putting forward all along” regarding the constitutionality of the law.

“Had this stay not come through it would have certainly made things more challenging,” Ryan acknowledges. He says there is little doubt that requiring school boards to divert resources to accommodate unnecessary rules would have resulted in negative consequences.

“We don’t restrict ourselves to English when French is required,” Ryan maintains. He points out that school boards like the NFSB have traditionally operated bilingually. “We communicate in French in many instances,” he says, suggesting this is something they have been doing all along.

Ryan says he recognizes the stay represents good news for the English-speaking community. “There is a little hope,” he admits, while hesitating to suggest whether this ruling might be a precursor to something bigger.

“Bill 96 is a serious case and a fundamental case, so we will just have to wait.”

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