Quebec politicians divided, federal MPs outraged after teacher removed for wearing hijab

December 10, 2021
Quebec politicians divided, federal MPs outraged after teacher removed for wearing hijab

A Quebec elementary school teacher who was recently forced out of her teaching position for wearing a hijab has multiple federal members of Parliament speaking out and the province’s political parties on opposing ends of the sympathy spectrum. 

Until now, many Liberal and Conservative federal politicians have shied away from taking a stance against Quebec’s secularist law. But now, some say they can no longer stay quiet. 

“I cannot in good conscience keep silent on this anymore,” said Ontario Conservative MP Kyle Seeback in a tweet Thursday. 

“This is an absolute disgrace.”

The law, known as Bill 21, was passed in June 2019 and prohibits some public servants, including teachers and other government employees deemed to be in positions of authority, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

On Thursday, the Parti Québécois’s critic on secularism, Pascal Bérubé, confirmed the party’s support for the bill, calling it necessary. 

“The reason why this teacher doesn’t have a job … is because she doesn’t respect the law,” he said. “The law is for everyone … She tried to make a statement wearing a hijab.”

Bérubé added the ousted teacher in Chelsea, Que., “has a choice to make: her job or religion.” 

Quebec school board forced to remove teacher from class over religious symbols ban

A Quebec school board says it reluctantly pulled a teacher from the classroom because she wears a hijab, a violation of the province’s secularism law, which is being more stringently enforced ahead of court challenges. 2:09

Recently, the removal of Fatemeh Anvari, a new Grade 3 teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, gained national attention after she was told by her school’s principal that she had to move to a position outside the classroom because she wears a hijab.

Anvari says the religious headscarf is part of her identity.

“Yes, I am Muslim, but for me, [the hijab] holds other meanings of just my identity and how I’ve chosen to represent myself as a strong person in a world that may not want me to be myself,” she told CBC on Thursday. 

The law is facing several court challenges, which could last years and eventually make their way to the Supreme Court.

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade did not comment on Anvari’s specific case, but said her party voted against Bill 21 because members thought the law “went too far.” 

“We cannot be in favour of a situation like this; there’s no question about that,” she said.

Anglade said it’s not a matter of the labour shortage that is plaguing Quebec. “It aggravates the situation, but fundamentally, we don’t think it’s right.”

Removal of teacher is ‘cowardly,’ minister says

A flood of fiery tweets came pouring in from MPs across the country in condemnation of the Quebec law.

Chris Warkentin, an Alberta Conservative MP, said, “If government is free to limit religious freedom, it will take liberties to restrict other freedoms.”

Liberal MP for Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount Marc Garneau argued, “Nobody in Canada should ever lose their job because of what they wear or their religious beliefs.”

Ontario Liberal MP Iqra Khalid said the Quebec law is “deeply concerning” in regard to the “resounding impact” it could have on “who we celebrate, accept, tolerate and isolate.” 

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister and Montreal-area MP Marc Miller denounced the treatment of the teacher on Thursday, telling journalists ahead of question period in the House of Commons that the move was “cowardly.” 

“I think we’ve been quite clear that this type of discrimination isn’t reflective of the Quebec society I want to live in.”

Federal leaders react

At a news conference Thursday on Parliament Hill, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Bill 21 must be dealt with by the province alone, adding he has no desire to step on any provincial toes. 

He characterized his position as being the “exact same” as that of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has expressed his disagreement with the law and hasn’t ruled out the idea of federal intervention.

So far, Ottawa hasn’t made any effort to challenge the law.

In Ottawa, Singh said Anvari’s situation illustrates why he’s been opposed to Bill 21 all along.

WATCH | Bill 21 back in the spotlight in Ottawa

What’s expected in the fiscal update, Bill 21 back in the spotlight | At Issue

The At Issue panel discusses what to watch for in the federal government’s upcoming fiscal update and how it might address inflation. Plus, the panellists look at Quebec’s Bill 21 and why it’s getting renewed attention in Ottawa. 13:42

“There are no concerns about her capacity and ability to teach, no concerns about whether she’s providing good education to kids,” Singh said in Ottawa.

“Simply because of the way she looked and they way she dressed, she’s no longer able to teach these kids. That is everything that is wrong with this bill.”

The teacher’s removal came after the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled Nov. 9 that the province’s English school boards have to enforce Bill 21 until challenges to the law can be heard in court, a process that could take years.

‘We live in a secular society’ Quebec says

Amid the backlash, the Quebec government defended Anvari’s reassignment. 

Speaking to reporters Friday, Premier François Legault said Anvari’s school board should not have hired her in the first place given Bill 21, which he emphasized was passed democratically in the National Assembly in June 2019. 

“I think it’s a reasonable law, a balanced law,” he said.

“Quebec has made the choice of secularism and I think it must be respected.”

According to Christopher Skeete, parliamentary assistant to the minister responsible for fighting racism for the governing party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, Anvari wasn’t removed for wearing a hijab, in his view, but rather for being asked to remove a religious symbol and refusing to do so, which contravenes the secularist law.

“Everyone knew this was the case, and we’re proud to say we live in a secular society here in Quebec.”

On Friday, Québec Solidaire parliamentary leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois blamed the CAQ for Anvari’s “very sad,” situation, adding that the importance of secularism in public institutions should not come at the price of excluding “passionate people” who want to work in the public sector, especially amid a crippling labour shortage. 

A hand-drawn picture sits surrounded by green ribbons on the chain link fence outside Chelsea Elementary School and says, ‘We heart you Ms. Fatemeh!!!.’ (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Meanwhile, Anvari’s school community has rallied around her and organized a letter-writing campaign to denounce the situation to the school board and provincial officials, including Premier François Legault and CAQ MNA Robert Bussière, who represents the area.

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