An interview with newly elected EMSB Chair Joe Ortona
Giuseppe (Joe) Ortona’s childhood and teenage education years are rooted in the schools he now serves as the new chair of the English Montreal School Board (EMSB). Born and raised in St. Leonard, he attended Nesbitt Elementary School (’93) and then completed his secondary studies at Vincent Massey Collegiate in 1998. His other, earlier, connection to the EMSB was his job as vocational training technician, a position he held for 12 years in part-time and full-time capacities while pursuing his studies.
Along Mr. Ortona’s educational path was the three-year police technology program at John Abbott College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, where he graduated in 2002. But then, instead of proceeding on to the police academy, he turned his attention to criminology, which he studied for several years at the Université de Montréal before deciding on the career change that would steer him into his current profession: law.
Mr. Ortona graduated in Civil Law, followed by Common Law, and earned his Juris Doctor from the University of Ottawa. He passed the bar in 2011 and has been working as a lawyer since.
Mr. Ortona’s professional experience includes working for the City of Montreal as a prosecutor, a position he held for five years after articling. He now works as a criminal defense attorney in his own independent legal firm.
Where it started
Mr. Ortona had been involved in standing up for and supporting English schools and different human rights issues in the East End for many years. However, it was his participation in protesting the closure of a local police station that actually prompted people to approach him to run in 2014. He recalls elected officials in the municipal government telling him he would be a good representative for the community. When friends, who were parents of school-age children in the English public school system, encouraged him to seek office run in the school board election he agreed.. “I thought it would be something I would enjoy,” he said. “It turns out I was right.”
Mr. Ortona started his governance role with the EMSB in 2014 when he ran for election as school board commissioner for Rivière-des-Prairies – and won. He held that position for six years and in 2018, became vice-chair. As far as governance is concerned he has been a member of the Advisory Committee on Transportation (where he sat as a vice-chair), the Executive Committee and Governance and Ethics, and served as an EMSB representative of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA).
On September 27, 2020, Mr. Ortona was acclaimed as he new EMSB chair.
Working on the legislative challenges
As a Board representative, Mr. Ortona has been involved in legislative matters over the years, particularly in the area of school board governance. He is a staunch defender of the constitutional right of the English-speaking minority and has advocated against Quebec legislation which seeks to interfere in the management of English public school boards. In 2016, he joined in a presentation to the Parliamentary Commission at the National Assembly to successfully counter Bill 86, an “Act to modify the organization and governance of school boards,” which would have restricted the community’s right to elect its own school board representatives.
Mr. Ortona is currently part of the legal challenge against the CAQ government’s Bill 40 (“An Act to amend mainly the Education Act with regard to school organization and governance”), which seeks to replace school boards with service centres. “It will be debated in the courts on its merits,” he explained, “and we’re confident we will win. Our hope is that once this is settled, the government will respect our constitutional rights to school board governance, and move on to actual school board business and leave the school boards to go on with the education of the children.”
Mr. Ortona was also involved in launching a court challenge against Bill 21 (“An Act respecting the laicity of the State”), which bans religious symbols. Though the scope of the bill goes beyond schools, he explained, it interferes with the management of school boards, which includes the hiring of teachers. “Restrictions on hiring based on religious symbols is a violation of our right to manage and control our school boards,” he said.
Among some of accomplishments at the EMSB in that first term in office, Mr. Ortona points to getting rid of “outdated, old practices that hadn’t evolved up to standard.” As an example he points towards the abolishment of the selection committee, which was political interference in the hiring process.” He describes himself as a commissioner who is “always very engaged with the community,” bringing concerns to the appropriate administrators and following up. As chair of the Governance and Ethics Committee, he said “we updated and polished outdated codes of ethics and other by-laws that needed to be changed and make sure they were up to standard.”
Favourite parts of the job
Being engaged with the community, attending governing board meetings, witnessing the many positive things being done in the schools and working with involved parent volunteers are all aspects of the job Mr. Ortona says he has enjoyed. “Certainly, one of the favourite parts of the job is getting a sense that you are working for them, that you’re representing them,” he said.
Priorities moving forward
Broadly speaking, Mr. Ortona says he will work to ensure minority rights are respected. “I’m a big, big defender of our Section 23 right [of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms],” he said, adding he will continue to oppose Bill 40 and Bill 21, as well as school transfers. He also mentioned the board’s enrolment and his desire to boost those numbers.
While the volunteers, mostly made up of parents, “know the community, and know the great things happening in the schools,” he said he would like to “get the message out there” about these successes in an extensive marketing campaign to the general population, especially to the families who are looking at the French or private sector.
“We have the highest success rate of any public school board in Quebec, but we also need to express that we’re on par with the private sector,” Mr. Ortona stated.
Mr. Ortona wants to counter the public perception that the private system is better. “Actually, compared to the EMSB, it’s not,” he said. “ Based on our success rate vis-à-vis that of private schools there is a very small gap between the two. We provide educational services to everyone.”
Mr. Ortona also said it was going to be important to “start looking at governance of the board from a different perspective –a minority rights perspective.”
Bill 40, which is currently suspended, seeks to transform school boards into service centres. The case will proceed in Superior Court in April.
“Going to court on Bill 40 is the first time in my generation that we have ever challenged the government on minority language rights when it comes to Section 23 [of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms],” Mr. Ortona said. “We won round one and two. Going to court is always the last resort, but when we look at government funding for our school board, government regulations, the law, and all of the restrictions on where and how we can spend money, I think we need to be looking at it from a Section 23 perspective and not just take it at face value that this is what the Ministry said and this is what it is. Rather, does it respect our right to management and control? Does this restrict us in any way from our Section 23 rights? Are they fulfilling their Section 23 obligations to us? And making sure that that happens.”
Mr. Ortona said this is the only way to ensure the adequate funding for educational and renovation projects as well as special programs such as STEAM, advanced math and robotics, as well as transportation and bussing.
Mr. Ortona noted a more overarching priority, which he said was to “defend our language, and the cultural aspects of the English community and of the board.”
The new Council’s first meeting will be on Wednesday, November 11 at 6:00 pm and broadcast live at www.emsb.qc.ca.