May 9, 2022
(TORONTO) — The Toronto City Council unanimously voted in December to oppose legislation brought in another province, Quebec, which had barred some public servants from wearing items associated with organized religion while performing specific public sector jobs.
Bill 21, a secularism law in Quebec, passed in June 2019. It initially prohibited anyone working in public services, such as teachers and lawyers, from wearing religious garments such as hijabs, kippahs, rosaries, turbans, and crosses while they work, aiming for religious neutrality.
Opposition quickly mounted to the legislation, which critics said discriminated against religious minorities.
Toronto’s $100,000 financial contribution in support of a legal challenge brought by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the World Sikh Organization, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association was made to oppose Bill 21. Toronto was joined by other municipalities such as Brampton and London with their financial contribution.
But other than stating that funds for the contribution would come from the city’s budget, officials from Toronto’s media relations team could not tell The Click where exactly in the budget the money is coming from.
Assistant Professor Unchechukwu Ngwaba, who teaches administrative law at Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the financial contribution from the city comes at a loss for Torontonians.
“So I don’t know where they’re gonna find $100,000 from, but I can assure you that that is $100,000 less of whatever would have been used for social welfare, or for health care, or other needs in the municipality,” said Ngwaba. “If you take out $100,000 that was meant for projects in the municipality to go and fight a legal challenge that doesn’t affect residents of the municipality, that’s a bit problematic.”
Ngwaba said the contribution raises “all sorts of questions” about city council powers.
“Hypothetically, municipalities are able to, you know, wage a sort of activism against that legislation by pulling together funds, and indeed, this, this is what has happened,” said Ngwaba.
Toronto resident Louis Labrecque sued the city for utilizing municipal funds to oppose a bill outside their jurisdiction. Labreque’s lawyer did not respond to The Click’s request for comment.
In April 2021, a portion of Bill 21 was struck down when Justice Marc-André Blanchard ruled that a part of the bill was inoperative because it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ protections for minority language educational rights.
In Quebec, that meant Bill 21 was inoperative in English-speaking schools but was enforced in French-speaking schools as per English or French School Boards, therefore leaving the majority of the law upheld.
Ngwaba said the bill is protected under a notwithstanding clause.
“The way the notwithstanding clause works is that it allows Parliament or a provincial legislature to temporarily override certain provisions or portions of the charter,” Ngwaba said.
This temporary override can be extended when it lapses in about five years, Ngwaba said.
The city did not respond to questions about the lawsuit filed by Labreque, and said it does not comment on active court proceedings.