Montreal parents and teachers are voicing a growing chorus of concerns as the Coalition Avenir Québec government prepares to move forward with its contentious proposal on religious neutrality.
The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) opened its doors to the public on Wednesday for an emergency meeting on the province’s plan to bar civil servants in positions of authority —including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.
“Our teachers are wearing religious symbols — it has had no effect on students’ success,” said EMSB chairperson Angela Mancini, adding the school board wants to teach its students about diversity.
The proposed legislation was a key election promise made by Quebec Premier François Legault, who maintains it has widespread support from across the province. It has also sparked protests in Montreal and accusations from teachers that the CAQ is trying to create a problem where none exists.
The meeting drew parents, retired educators, teacher’s associations and residents, who showed up to offer their opinions over the proposed ban. The EMSB, which has strongly opposed similar plans from other governments, will use the feedback to formulate its own decision and develop an eventual action plan.
For Saba Ansari, a mother of Muslim faith whose children used to attend an EMSB school, the province’s plan is disappointing.
“Why are we focusing on these kinds of issues?” she said. “This is personal freedom, actually, and it should be given to us.”
If the Legault government’s plan becomes law, Ansari said she fears her children will face hardships due to their religious beliefs.
“How will they feel? They will feel like second-class citizens.”
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The Montreal Teachers’ Association called the government’s decision “regrettable,” adding it would vigorously defend the rights of educators if they are barred from exercising religious freedom.
“Targeting individuals based on what they wear and their personal religious beliefs feeds intolerance,” said MTA president Peter Sutherland, “and is in complete opposition to the very values of tolerance and inclusion that teachers promote in their classrooms every day.”
Last week, the provincial government approached Quebec school boards to ask if they know how many teachers and staff wear religious symbols at work.
The education ministry then admitted Tuesday it began those surveys in 2018, when the Liberals were in office. Education Minister Jean-François Roberge then denounced the criticism the CAQ government faced from school boards and the opposition over the issue.
Legault, for his part, said earlier this week it doesn’t matter how few teachers in Quebec wear religious symbols at work. He said governments need to have a “vision” and recognize that the practice will become more prevalent.
“We know there will be more and more in our society, and in other societies, and we should have legislated on this issue years ago,” he said on Monday.
The bill on religious neutrality is expected to be tabled sometime in the spring.
— With files from Global’s Brayden Jagger Haines and The Canadian Press