Quebec law society postpones another speech amid Bill 21 criticism

MONTREAL — A Quebec law society is facing criticism over its speaking invitation to a Supreme Court justice given the group is involved in one of several court challenges to the province's secularism law, known as Bill 21.

The Lord Reading Law Society said late Thursday that an event involving Supreme Court of Canada Justices Rosalie Abella and Russell Brown for Feb. 6 has been postponed. The announcement came the same day criticisms were raised by a Quebec history professor.

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It's the second time in as many months the organization — an association of Jewish jurists — has backtracked on an event after inviting judges who have or were expected to hear cases involving the secularism law, known as Bill 21.

The law prohibits some public sector workers, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols at work.

Abella was expected to introduce Brown at the event, who was to give a speech.

The society made the decision to postpone, said Renee Theriault, senior legal counsel in the office of Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner, in an email.

The society said in a statement it did not intend to make any further comments. It didn't explain — nor did the high court — the actual reason for the postponement involving Justice Brown.

The association has long organized paid events attended by lawyers and judges.

Quebec historian Frederic Bastien, who was critical of the society's invitation, sees it as a flagrant conflict of interest.

Bastien, who is mulling a run at the vacant leadership of the Parti Quebecois, took to Facebook on Thursday threatening to file a complaint with the Canadian Judicial Council if the event wasn't cancelled.

In early December, the outgoing chief justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal, Nicole Duval Hesler, postponed a speech she was to give to the organization.

A few weeks before her scheduled appearance, Duval Hesler had heard arguments in a Bill 21 related case challenging a lower court decision dismissing a request for an injunction to have the central elements of the law suspended while their full legal challenge is heard.

The appellate court had not delivered its decision at that time, but ultimately found in favour of the government.

That decision led to the law's challengers — a national Muslim organization, a civil liberties group and a university student who wears the hijab — to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada this month.

The Lord Reading Law Society has filed an intervention in another court challenge to the law, brought by three women teachers.

The society also submitted a brief to a legislature committee last April, which stated Bill 21 "has no reason to exist and, in fact, will create and worsen divisions in Quebec."

Bastien denounced the Quebec judge, saying the magistrate failed to show impartiality and calling on her to recuse herself. More than one complaint was filed with the Canadian Judicial Council.

This report was first published by The Canadian Press on Jan. 24, 2019.

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