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Hijab-wearing teacher who lost job due to Bill 21 was 'trying to make a statement': Quebec lawmakers

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After news broke that a teacher in Chelsea, Que. lost her classroom job for wearing a hijab—in contravention of Bill 21—some Quebec politicians doubled down, even saying the young woman did it intentionally to “make a statement.”

“The reason this teacher doesn't have a job is because she didn't respect the law,” said Pascal Bérubé, the Parti Québécois’s critic on secularism, on Thursday morning.

“The law is for everyone. She tried to make a statement wearing a hijab.”

Bérubé said Anvari "has to make a choice: her job or religion," he said. "[They’re] not going well together."

But the teacher, Fatemeh Anvari, told CTV News on Thursday that her reassignment at her primary school came as a surprise, after the local school board belatedly realized she wasn't allowed to teach under the Quebec law.

"It was absolute shock. It was hard to process," she said, though an outpouring of support this week has been "moving" and has lifted her spirits.

On Wednesday, CTV Ottawa reported that Anvari, a new Grade 3 teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, had been removed from the classroom, since she wears a hijab and under Bill 21 was not allowed to be in a “position of authority” while wearing this religious symbol.

Anvari said she has been moved into a job at the school doing “inclusion and diversity literacy,” but can no longer teach in a classroom.

A wave of outrage followed, with federal and provincial politicians weighing in to condemn, or to restate their support, for Bill 21, which bans teachers and some other kinds of civil servants from wearing all religious symbols, including Jewish kippahs and Sikh turbans.

“We’re proud to say we live in a secular society,” said Christopher Skeete of the governing party, the CAQ, which passed the law.

He later wrote on Twitter that Anvari wasn't removed, in his view, but rather she chose to refuse to take off her hijab.

“Bill 21 was necessary,” added Bérubé. “The Parti Quebecois voted for Bill 21.”

The Quebec Liberal leader said her party still opposes the law as being "fundamentally" wrong.

Federal minister and Montreal-area MP Marc Miller told media that Bill 21 was "cowardly," while Mount Royal MP Anthony Housefather condemned the law on Twitter, among other Liberals.

"How do we complain about human rights in other countries when this happens here?" Housefather wrote.

Ontario MP Kyle Seeback, a Conservative, called the law an "absolute disgrace" in a tweet, though his party leader, Erin O'Toole, repeated his previous stance that it was a matter for Quebec alone to manage.

A 'DISGUSTING' SUGGESTION

It's not entirely clear what led to Anvari's hiring and later reassignment, given the law -- her school board has not explained in detail what happened.

But if the accusation was that Anvari tried to make a “statement” by wearing her hijab, or that she donned the hijab after her hire, that's not true, a parent said -- she has worn it since she was hired.

“I’m completely appalled to hear this has been said,” said Kirsten Taylor-Bosman, whose daughter goes to Chelsea Elementary, about Bérubé's comment.

“I can assure you Ms. Fatemeh wore a hijab while she was a teacher in my daughter’s class and any suggestion otherwise is disgusting."

If her hijab was always present, it appears the Western Quebec School Board made an oversight when hiring her, failing to realize the law applied.

"There must have been a misunderstanding of the law. This is how I'm interpreting it," said Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, an umbrella union group that represents English-language teachers' unions, including Anvari's.

"I think it's real sad that someone was hired at the beginning of the school year, who has been doing their job, and is obviously liked by the students and by the parents, and is now being removed. So someone made a giant mistake here," she said.

In an interview with CTV News Ottawa, Western Quebec School Board interim chair Wayne Daly said the board removed the teacher from the classroom once the human resources department was made aware of the situation.

There was some legal confusion this year that may have contributed to the situation, based on Anvari's account to CTV News.

The only teachers, vice-principals or principals in Quebec who may wear religious symbols are those who had their jobs before March 2019, when the bill was tabled. They’re grandfathered in, though they can lose that right if they accept a promotion.

Anvari said she began substitute teaching in Chelsea only last spring, and then signed a contract beginning late this October. That means the grandfather clause didn't apply to her.

However, English Quebec school boards won a court victory this April when they were exempted from Bill 21. The complication was that this exemption doesn’t immediately apply, since the Quebec government challenged the ruling. While that appeal is pending, the law will stay in force.

In turn, the English Montreal School Board applied for a stay, allowing it to operate outside of Bill 21 rules during the months or years when the appeal is pending.

But a judge rejected that request in November, saying the law will stay in force for everybody for now.

Ansari told CTV News that she believed she was first hired in a small window of time when it seemed the law wasn't in force for English boards. However, the law has always been in force.

The publicity around the court decision this November appeared to simply bring the matter under the microscope, she said.

"It was mentioned after the Nov. 10 ruling when the appeal was shut down," she said.

"It was brought to their attention, so they wanted to kind of look into it and see if there was a way out of it."

They asked her if her headscarf was religious for her, and she said no, she considers it "an identity," she recalled.

"I don't believe someone who is not wearing a hijab is not practicing Islam," she said.

"It's sort of a resistance and resilience, because it's empowering for me to wear it."

Ultimately, however, the board decided it was a religious symbol, she said, and their only solution was to remove her from the classroom and reassign her, though they expressed their support for her and their opposition to the bill.

'A GREY CLOUD OVER QUEBEC'

Even with legal avenues exhausted, openly defying the law isn’t seen as an option by most school boards, said Russell Copeman, the head of the Quebec English School Boards Association.

“It is very, very difficult for a public body to not respect the law,” Copeman told CTV News.

“That would be asking a lot of other public bodies such as a school board... You know, especially as a school board teaching children values, including respect for the law,” he said.

“Having successfully challenged [the law] in Superior Court, and continuing to challenge it at the Court of Appeal and potentially higher, is the right way to go, in our view.”

However, amid a hiring shortage, the situation is also really frustrating, he said, not to mention the bigger issues of religious freedom and the importance of teaching kids to value diversity.

There’s also some hypocrisy to the law, he said, since it doesn’t apply to everyone—not only the grandfathered staff are exempted, but also northern Indigenous territories in Nunavik and around James Bay, which manage their own education systems under the James Bay Agreement.

“It is wrong to say the bill applies everywhere to everyone,” he said. “That is an incorrect statement and just not factually accurate.” 

He said the province should exempt English-language school boards as well.

Yetman said that in her second capacity in a national teachers' union group, questions about Bill 21 come up frequently, even more than two years after its passage into law.

"Bill 21 comes up in conversations all the time, and it's really unfortunate, because what it has done is put a grey cloud over the province of Quebec when it comes to equity and diversity," she said.

-- With reporting from CTV News' Cindy Sherwin, Kelly Greig, and Jeremie Charron

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