Push has now come to shove in Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s effort to stamp out ethnic diversity in his province’s public institutions. Parents of Grade 3 school children at Chelsea, in the Ottawa region, are up in arms over the removal of Fatemeh Anvari, their children’s teacher, who was wearing a head-scarf while teaching.
Under Mr. Legault’s two-year-old law on secularism of the state, commonly known as Bill 21, government employees in positions of authority, including school teachers, cannot wear religious symbols at work. This was enacted in order to ensure the religious neutrality of public services in Quebec.
In practice, this has meant members of ethnic minorities in Quebec have to disguise themselves as mainstream Quebecers if they want to work in public services. No head-scarves. No skull-caps. No turbans.
Challenges to the secularism law, filed by civil liberties groups, are wending their slow way through the courts of Quebec. The Quebec public broadly supports the law, and opposition parties have offered only timid criticism. The leading parties in Parliament, fearful of offending Quebec voters, have steered clear of criticizing the secularism law.
The Western Quebec School Board recently informed parents in Chelsea that Ms. Anvari would no longer be their children’s classroom teacher. She had been re-assigned to a literacy project that would target inclusion and awareness of diversity. This would spare the children from encountering a teacher wearing a head-scarf in defiance of Mr. Legault’s dress code.
The parents started a letter-writing campaign to re-instate Ms. Anvari. They want her back because she is a particularly gifted teacher.
This reasoning cut no ice with Mr. Legault. The whole thing was not his fault, he told a press conference last Friday. It was the fault of the school board because they should never have hired Ms. Anvari, a known head-scarf-wearer, in the first place.
Quebec needs to be more tolerant of ethnic minorities. This would be accomplished by keeping Ms. Anvari in her post as a classroom teacher in Chelsea. It would not be accomplished by blocking her from applying for such a position in the first place, as Mr. Legault prefers.
Employment of a teacher with a head-scarf does not offend the religious neutrality of the state. Religious neutrality of the state is found in the content of what the state does, not in the fashion choices of individual public employees.
Religious neutrality of the state is found in the content of what the state does, not in the fashion choices of individual public employees.
Until now, the debate within Quebec about that province’s secularism law has been mainly about such abstractions as non-discrimination and religious neutrality, which are of great interest to lawyers and academics but are generally less compelling to others. Now, suddenly, it is about a particular teacher and the children and parents who appreciate her work and her enthusiasm.
Mr. Legault liked it better before when there were no flesh-and-blood implications. It’s harder for him to win the argument when it turns out his intolerant policy has real human consequences.
The Quebec public has no wish to be unkind to a class of Grade 3 children and to their parents. They could support Mr. Legault’s law until now because it seemed fair to everyone and no one was being hurt.
Now, however, someone is being hurt. The former abstractions have taken human form.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole, who have both been steering a wide berth around the secularism debate, should seize this opportunity, speak up for tolerance and implore Mr. Legault to soften his intolerant law.