English Montreal school board sues after it's forced to communicate in French

MONTREAL — Quebec’s largest English-language school board says it is taking the provincial government to court over strict language rules requiring almost all of the board’s written communications to be in French.

Joe Ortona, chair of the English Montreal School Board, said it's absurd that employees of an English-language institution have to write to each other in French. He said Wednesday that the board will file a motion this week in Quebec Superior Court to suspend certain elements of the language law.

“If a teacher is addressing parents about an issue with their child, they're expected to write in French; if a principal is writing to their staff, they have to write in French; if (board members) are writing to each other about anything — an upcoming meeting, agenda items — they're expected to do that in French," he said.

While the use of English — in addition to French — remains allowed, Ortona said the rules will force employees to waste time writing emails in two languages. Some teachers and board employees might not speak French, he added.

"It's a veiled way of hindering and preventing the use of English, I'll remind you, at an English-language school board," he said.

Ortona said the legal challenge is in response to a warning the board recently received about its internal communications from the province's language watchdog — the Office québécois de la langue française.

The board plans to argue that the requirements violate minority language education rights and that if they're not immediately stayed, they will cause irreparable harm to the functioning of the board.

"We operate in English and I don't think we should be ashamed of that in any way whatsoever," Ortona said. "We are an English-language school board. We promote bilingualism and we teach French, of course, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that internally we operate in English."

There is an exception to the law that allows communications about pedagogical matters to be exclusively in English, but that exception is very narrow, he said, and doesn't apply to communications about behaviour in class, extracurricular activities, information sessions or school events.

Ortona said the new rules are a result of a language law reform, commonly known as Bill 96, adopted in May 2022. The majority of the law's provisions came into effect in June 2023, including a requirement that members of the public service make "exemplary" use of French. The law also gives the language watchdog broad powers of search and seizure and, Ortona said, the school board risks being fined if it doesn't comply.

However, Chantal Bouchard, a spokeswoman for the language watchdog, said the rules governing the use of English and French by English school boards haven't changed as a result of the new language law.

Under the pre-existing language law, she said, the board's communications with its staff and other English boards — as well as general communications to parents — can contain English if they also contain French. However, messages to an individual parent can be in both languages, or only in French or English, depending on their preferences.

Communications related to the teaching of a subject, whether they're intended for staff or students "can be made in the language of instruction, without having to use French at the same time," she wrote, while "administrative communications" must contain French, though they can contain English at the same time.

She said seven complaints have been made against the EMSB over its language use, particularly related to the websites of its schools.

The board is part of an ongoing court challenge to the constitutionality of the language law reform. Lawsuits against Bill 96 have also been brought by bilingual municipalities, a group of lawyers and an Indigenous organization.

A spokesman for Quebec's Minister of the French Language, Jean-François Roberge, declined to comment as the matter is before the court.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said communication would have to be exclusively in French.