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Quebec asking school boards how many employees wear religious symbols

WATCH: Quebec's education ministry has reached out to several school boards asking how many staff members wear religious symbols. While it may be legal for the government to make the request, one constitutional law expert says it's a step in the wrong direction. Global's Anne Leclair reports.

Quebec’s school boards say they have been receiving calls from the government asking if they know how many of their teachers and staff wear religious symbols at work.

“Our school board does not have that type of listing, so we told them we don’t have that information, said Carol Heffernan, assistant director general of the Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB).

READ MORE: ‘It’s a part of me’: Quebec teachers decry proposed religious symbol ban

She notes that the government did not request the board make such a list.

“I never heard of that being a part of any type of list that school boards do, or any employee recruitment kit,” she said, adding that boards work closely with the ministry and would not say if she found the request to be ethical or not.

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“I was pretty surprised to hear that the government was looking into this. It is concerning. We don’t have that information, so we can’t provide it.”

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According to Quebec’s education ministry, there was no “official demand made to the school boards to know how many people in their network wear religious symbols.”

READ MORE: CAQ government would fire teachers, judges wearing religious symbols

Officials stated that only “some directors” were contacted to know if they “already had this information.”

“This is a fake scandal that was created by the school boards,” the ministry argued.

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However, in an interview with Global News Monday, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said he was the one who made the request for data.

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“I need to know all the information about the subject and that’s why I asked [for it],” he said.

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“Right now, we are writing a bill about the secularization of the state, about the fact that people who are in authority, like judges, police officers, prison guards and teachers should not wear religious symbols.”

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The minister argued the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) has been clear since the election campaign last fall that they were going to create this “clear separation between state and religion.”

“They should collaborate and they should not antagonize their relationship with the government,” Jolin-Barrette told Global News.

“We need to work all together on that bill and project, it’s really important. The population of Quebec wants it.”

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Lawyer Julius Grey points out the government has every right to request such information, without making it obligatory to submit.

READ MORE: Here are five key promises made by the CAQ

“What I find disturbing about it all is that the government is continuing to treat this problem as through it were a real problem,” he told Global News.

“In fact, it’s a completely trivial matter, which is unfair. They shouldn’t legislate on it at all.”

Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said he was the one who asked if the school boards had data on employees wearing religious symbols.
Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said he was the one who asked if the school boards had data on employees wearing religious symbols. Anne Leclair/Global News

Grey argued the government should instead be concerned with improving pressing issues at its schools.

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“How many children arrive in school hungry? How many children are not properly dressed?” he asked.

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“Why are we obsessed with what I’m sure will turn out to be a very small number of people who happen to wear a perfectly harmless scarf or turban or whatever it is.”

He noted that having a representative from the ministry call each school board individually is a “terrible waste of time.”

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“It once again shows how, for many years now, Quebec has been preoccupied with something that they shouldn’t be preoccupied with. It doesn’t matter,” Grey told Global News.

“I think it’s indicative that they didn’t want it to fall into the hands of journalists and they were afraid about how to formulate it.”

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Jolin-Barrette notes that the bill will be tabled, stating it won’t make a difference how many teachers or staff are affected.

“We have a decision [to make] about the way our society is governed and that’s what I will do,” he said.
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When asked why the government chose to call the school boards, rather than send an official notice via mail or e-mail, Jolin-Barrette said: “we needed to have that information quickly, so I cannot say why that mode of communication [was chosen.]”

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He argued that it was not in an attempt to “hide the request,” saying the school boards’ responses will be part of the greater debate.

“Now, we have a clear answer that the school boards don’t have that information and that’s the end of that question,” he said.

Jolin-Barrette said he expects the bill to be tabled sometime in the spring during the next parliamentary session..

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