Teachers, students gather against Quebec's Bill 21 after hijab-wearing teacher forced from classroom
MONTREAL -- Teachers gathered in downtown Montreal Wednesday demanding an overhaul to Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 after a teacher in Chelsea, Que. was removed from her classroom for wearing a hijab.
Bill 21, also commonly referred to as Quebec’s secularism law, bans some public servants deemed to be in positions of authority -- such as teachers, judges and police officers -- from wearing religious symbols on the job.
Passed in 2019, national debate has exploded again after Fatemeh Anvari, a Grade 3 teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, was told she could no longer continue in her role on Dec. 3 because her of her hijab.
Speakers at the gathering called on Quebec Premier Francois Legault, whose party enacted the bill, to look at the law through the lens of history.
“Fatima is not the first victim. Maybe hers is the first face that we see so clearly, but as indeviduals, there are many victims (of the law),” said Ehab Latoyef of Non a la Loi 21. “There were so many people who could not get a job, or had to leave the province.”
“There are those who had to choose between their livelihood and their (religious) beliefs,” he added.
It came a day after protestors gathered in Anvari’s hometown of Chelsea, Que. to voice their outrage at the law.
“We’re here to represent Ms. Fatemeh and all the other people who wear hijabs,” says Zoe Neldrum, a student in the Grade 3 class Anvari used to teach, “because it’s wrong and unfair and we want her to be our teacher again because she’s one of the best teachers we ever had.”
“We just wanted to make sure that the Quebec government knows that they can’t get away with this in our community,” David Harris, an organizer of the protest, told CTV News Ottawa. “We see this as a Bill that clearly goes too far in the name of secularism.”
"When it comes to members of our community, we want to show that we stand up for them," Harris said.
‘NOT A RACIST SOCIETY’
“Quebec is not, big underline, is not a racist society,” said Canadian Muslim Forum (CMF) President Samer Majzoub in an interview with CTV News.
However, he continued, Bill 21 “is directly or indirectly approving discrimination, whether we like it or not.”
The CMF announced their formal opposition to the law on Wednesday, writing in a statement that the government ought to at least exclude the education sector from its jurisdiction.
“The education sector, which is an extremely important one, has been witnessing a severe need for qualified educational staff,” wrote the CMF.
Meanwhile, some federal lawmakers pushed for federal intervention in the provincial law.
Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan released a statement calling Bill 21 "discriminatory and racist," and while the law is provincial, not federal, BC Conservative MP Mark Strahl said he thinks "some issues transcend jurisdiction."
"We can't let laws like that go unchallenged," he told reporters before heading into the Tories' national caucus meeting Wednesday, where he said the issue would be raised.
While Prime Minister Trudeau and Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole have both voiced their displeasure with the law, neither have made public any plans to challenge it.
In a recent interview with the prime minister on CTV’s Question Period, Trudeau didn’t mince words, calling Bill 21 outrightly “unjust.”
However, he said, “the best place to be fighting this as a first step is for Quebecers themselves to be challenging this unjust law in their courts that their provincial government put forward,” Trudeau said.
“We have taken (a) very clear stance that this bill is … wrong. We have also said we’re not putting aside the possibility of challenging it at the Supreme Court.”
Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said that while he personally opposes the law, he believes it's one that Quebecers alone must deal with.