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Quebec chief justice accused of bias in Bill 21 appeal

Chief Justice of Quebec Nicole Duval Hesler (Court of Appeal of Quebec photo)

An address by Quebec’s top judge to an association of Jewish lawyers has been cancelled in the wake of a controversy related to a case opposing the province’s secularism law, which she’s currently deliberating.

Court of Appeal Chief Justice Nicole Duval Hesler’s lecture at an event hosted by the Lord Reading Law Society, which was scheduled for Dec. 10, is cited in a formal complaint against her that was filed by Quebec historian Frédéric Bastien.

An expert in the Canadian Constitution, he argues that because the Lord Reading Law Society is publicly opposed to the law, she cannot impartially adjudicate the appeal that she, along with two other judges, heard on Nov. 26.

Moreover, Bastien points out that the Lord Reading Law Society, which represents Jewish jurists in Quebec, has just joined another action against the law, something the group says Duval Hesler did not know when she accepted the invitation to deliver its annual human rights lecture at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, Que., on the topic, “Avoiding Conflicts of Interest at the Court of Appeal.”

The Lord Reading Law Society announced on Dec. 3 that Duval Hesler’s speech had been postponed indefinitely, by mutual agreement.

The day before, Bastien announced that he had filed a complaint with the Canadian Judicial Council, seeking her recusal.

The appeal to the Bill 21 case was filed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The Lord Reading Law Society presented a brief at the public hearings in May, in which it argued that the proposed legislation infringes on fundamental rights and would impose a state religion of “laicity,” rather than promote neutrality.

Gregory Azancot, the president of the Lord Reading Law Society, said his organization, which was founded in 1948, has a long tradition of holding educational events for the legal profession, which often feature speakers from the judiciary, government and academia.

The event in question was “unrelated to Bill 21, or to the legal position that the society has taken with regards to this particular piece of legislation,” Azancot states.

He refutes Bastien’s accusation that Duval Hesler showed bias against Bill 21 by accepting to speak to an organization that’s actively opposed to it, and that she was contributing financially to it because this was a paid event.

Anzacut says the non-profit organization does not hold fundraising events, “nor does it pay any of its speakers, and participants only pay for their meals.”

Apart from her scheduled talk, Bastien accuses Duval Hesler of demonstrating political bias during the Nov. 26 hearing of the appeal, when she declared that she is a feminist and referred to “visual allergies” to religious symbols on the part of some people. Outside the courtroom, she made positive remarks about multiculturalism and religious accommodation, he adds.

The Lord Reading Law Society has also sought to intervene in a constitutional challenge to Bill 21 that was launched in September by three female Catholic and Muslim teachers. They are opposed to the law’s prohibition on teachers and other public servants wearing religious symbols on the job.

The intervention allows the Lord Reading Law Society to present arguments in court when the case is heard.

Bastien teaches courses in the Canadian Constitution and international relations at Dawson College, and authored the book, The Battle of London, in which he accused the Supreme Court of interfering in the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982.

If the Canadian Judicial Council does not find that Duval Hesler breached her duty of impartiality, Bastien says Quebec Justice Minister Sonia LeBel should demand her recusal.

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