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Trudeau repeats claim that feds may intervene in legal challenge of Quebec's Bill 21; effects are 'no longer theoretical'

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MONTREAL -

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renewed his claim that the federal government is not ruling out intervening to challenge Quebec’s Bill 21 in court after he said the effects of the law on Quebecers are no longer “theoretical.”

“I always said very clearly I deeply disagree with Bill 21. I don’t find that in a free and open society that someone should lose their job because of their religion,” Trudeau told reporters Monday morning after an announcement about child-care funding in New Brunswick.

Last week, a Grade 3 teacher in Chelsea, Que. made national headlines after she was removed from her job for wearing a hijab, in violation of Quebec’s secularism law, Bill 21, which was passed in 2019 and is being challenged in court.

The law prohibits certain public service employees, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols at work, such as hijabs and turbans, and critics have said the law disproportionately affects Muslim women.

The removal of Fatemah Anvari prompted an outpouring of support from her students who tied green ribbons on a fence outside Chelsea Elementary School where she taught. Parents of her students and politicians across the country, including members of Trudeau’s caucus, also condemned the teacher's removal due to the law. 

“This is no longer a theoretical issue,” the prime minister said Monday in his first public comments on her case. 

“There are families, there are communities, there’s a community in the Outaouais that is reacting and they’re concerned, they’re very sympathetic because of the teacher, Fatemeh Anvari, who lost her job because of her religion.”

While he spoke out against Bill 21, he said Quebecers are in the process of defending their right to pass their own laws and that that process must be respected.

“But as I have said very often we have not ruled out the possibility of intervening as the federal government at some point in time,” he added, without elaborating on when that might be, but saying at this point he doesn't want the government's opposition to the bill to turn into a battle between Quebec and Ottawa.  

Asked to respond to the prime minister's comments on Monday, Premier François Legault defended the bill that he said was "voted democratically" and "supported by the majority of Quebecers."

"I don't see how the federal government can intervene in [such a] touchy subject for our nation," Legault said, adding that the law only applies to people in positions of authority during the course of their work. 

It’s still not exactly clear how Anvari was able to make it into a classroom with a hijab given the secularism law was passed in 2019. Only those grandfathered by provisions of bill were legally allowed to wear religious symbols in the classroom, but in her case, she was hired in October.

The Western Quebec School Board has only said they removed her from the classroom after the HR department at the school was informed of the situation this month.

Her story has become a flashpoint in the heated debate over the controversial law, though Quebec’s premier has not backed down on supporting it.

Last week, he said the school board should not have hired Anvari in the first place and that citizens must repsect laws that are passed in Quebec. 

Although English Quebec school boards won an appeal against the law, they must still abide by it for now, since the province challenged the court’s decision and the law will stay in effect until that appeal is heard.

Because of that, English boards requested a temporary stay of the law pending the appeal, but in November a judge refused their request. 

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