Quebec chief justice postpones speech to Jewish law society over Bill 21 concerns

Michel Doyon is sworn in as Lt. Governor of the province of Quebec by Quebec Chief Justice Nicole Duval Hesler, Thursday, September 24, 2015 at the legislature in Quebec City. Quebec's chief justice, who is presiding over an appeal to the province's secularism law, will no longer be speaking to an association of Jewish lawyers in Montreal following accusations of a conflict of interest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL - Quebec's chief justice, who is hearing a case seeking a suspension of the province's secularism law, will no longer be speaking to an association of Jewish lawyers in Montreal following allegations of bias.

The Lord Reading Law Society announced late Tuesday it and Chief Justice Nicole Duval Hesler mutually decided to postpone her speech scheduled for Dec. 10 because the society is involved in a separate court challenge to the secularism law, known as Bill 21.

Duval Hesler's scheduled talk on how to avoid conflicts of interest at the Quebec Court of Appeal was one element of a complaint filed against her at the Canadian Judicial Council by a Montreal junior college history teacher.

Frederic Bastien also complained to the council that while presiding over a Bill 21 case last week the chief justice declared herself a feminist and suggested opposition to the province's secularism law results from "visual allergies'' to seeing women in a hijab.

Bastien asked the council to investigate Duval Hesler for her comments and for her planned speech to the law society, which he said left the impression she was a partisan judge with a bias against Bill 21.

The law prohibits some public sector workers, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols at work, and Duval Hesler is one of three judges hearing an appeal from groups seeking to have the central components of the law suspended while their full legal challenge is heard.

The Lord Reading Law Society had 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 ...."

The chief justice's actions have drawn divided reactions from academics, with some defending her and others saying she went too far. A judicial council spokeswoman said Monday 30 people had contacted the office with concerns about Duval Hesler following news of Bastien's complaint.

Premier Francois Legault declined on Wednesday to weigh in on the debate but promised to do what he can to defend the law.

"I told you I have to be prudent, to protect the separation of powers," he told reporters when asked the postponement of Duval Hesler's speech. "I can't tell you more. What I can say is that the government will do all that is possible to protect Bill 21."

This reporter was first published by The Canadian Press on Dec. 4, 2019.

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