Quebec teacher’s removal for wearing hijab a ‘cowardly’ move, minister says

Click to play video: 'Ottawa stays on the sidelines over new Bill 21 disputes in Quebec'
Ottawa stays on the sidelines over new Bill 21 disputes in Quebec
WATCH: As controversy again erupts over Quebec's Bill 21, after a teacher wearing a hijab was removed from her classroom, calls are growing for the federal government to intervene in the religious symbols law. But as David Akin explains, Ottawa is choosing to stay on the sidelines. – Dec 10, 2021

Multiple politicians are speaking out to condemn the reassignment of an elementary school teacher in Western Quebec, who was forced to leave her job after being told her hijab violates the province’s law that forbids teachers from wearing religious symbols.

That law, known as Bill 21, was passed in June 2019 and bans the wearing of religious symbols such as hijabs, kippas and turbans by teachers and other government employees deemed to be in positions of authority.

“It’s cowardly,” said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, who is also a Montreal-area MP.

“This type of discrimination isn’t reflective of the Quebec society I want to live in.”

Click to play video: 'Trudeau vows to combat Islamophobia, critics say start with Quebec’s Bill C-21'
Trudeau vows to combat Islamophobia, critics say start with Quebec’s Bill C-21

Miller pointed out that under Bill 21, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan “couldn’t teach music class in Quebec, because of the turban that he wears on his head.”

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“He shouldn’t, because he’s a lousy musician, but that’s the only reason he should be excluded from teaching, frankly…it’s disheartening and it’s picking on someone vulnerable.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has previously shared stories of hatred he faced for wearing a turban, also slammed the school board’s decision.

“There are no concerns about her capacity and ability to teach, no concerns about whether she’s providing good education to kids, simply because of the way she looked and the way she dressed, she is no longer able to teach those kids,” he said.

Click to play video: 'U.S. Rep. Illhan Omar gets choked up discussing incidents of Islamophobia she’s experienced since entering Congress'
U.S. Rep. Illhan Omar gets choked up discussing incidents of Islamophobia she’s experienced since entering Congress

“On a personal note, I know what that’s like — to feel like you don’t belong because of the way you look, and to not be able to do what you love because of the way you look. That’s what’s happening right now, and why this bill is so wrong.”

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Parents from the Chelsea Elementary School said they found out the teacher was being removed last week, when they received a letter about it. Some later learned it was due to her hijab, and the teacher herself ultimately confirmed that fact in an interview, according to The Canadian Press.

In a statement sent to The Canadian Press, the Western Quebec School Board — which has previously come out firmly against Bill 21 — declined to comment specifically due to confidentiality surrounding human resources issues.

Director general Mike Dubeau did say, however, that the board’s stance on Bill 21 has not changed — but he said it is subject to provincial laws that regulate employment in the public sector.

The statement did little to quell concerns, however, as politicians of all political stripes continue to speak out against the decision.

Conservative MP Kyle Seeback took to Twitter to express his concern, saying he “cannot in good conscience keep silent on this anymore.”

“This is an absolute disgrace. It’s time politicians stood up for what’s right. Bill 21 has to be opposed. In court, in the house of commons and in the streets,” he wrote.

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Liberal MP Iqra Khalid — who led the 2017 push to get MPs to agree to M-103, the anti-Islamophobia motion — also took to Twitter to say she is “deeply concerned” about the teacher’s removal.

“We have seen what happens when policies are used to reinforce systemic prejudice and divide Canadians. We have felt their tragic consequences,” she wrote.

“We are better than this.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole refused to take a swipe at Quebec over Bill 21 during a Thursday press conference — while reiterating that he’s not a fan of the law.

“I personally oppose Bill 21 and the measures in it. I’ve also said that I will try and respect provincial jurisdiction and the competences of the provincial governments to make decisions like in the case of Quebec,” he said.

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“We would never apply a bill like this on the federal jurisdiction…but it is a question for Quebec to decide. And I do think we have to make sure that everyone is respectful and respected in these discussions about secularism.”

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu added that “women should have the right to wear what they want to wear,” a sentiment Liberal MP Salma Zahid echoed.

“It should be a woman’s choice what to wear and what not to wear. I wear a hijab.” she said.

“I will always be there to stand up for those women who want to wear a hijab…and in this incident, which has happened with the teacher in Quebec, I think it’s not right.”

Zahid added that “governments don’t have a business in telling women what to wear and what not to wear.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke slowly and carefully when she was asked about the teacher’s removal, pointing to the government’s position on Bill 21.

“The Prime Minister was very clear during the election campaign…he was very clear about our government’s position, and of course, that remains our government’s position.”

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Click to play video: 'Quebec Superior Court upholds most of province’s secularism law'
Quebec Superior Court upholds most of province’s secularism law

During a campaign stop on Montreal’s South Shore in September, Trudeau said the government haven’t ruled out intervening against the secularism law.

“We have not taken off the table intervening at a later date because no federal government should take off the table the ability to stand up for people’s fundamental rights,” he said.

The secularism law is already being challenged by several groups. Hearings in Montreal combined four lawsuits challenging the law on the grounds it discriminates against religious minorities, particularly Muslim women, and were ongoing last month.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association pledged to appeal an April ruling by a Quebec Superior Court judge that largely upheld the law, despite acknowledging it violates the rights of Muslim women and has dehumanizing consequences for those who wear religious symbols.

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That ruling did strike down parts of the bill concerning English-language school boards in the province, and members of the provincial legislature.

The promised appeal is currently underway in Quebec’s courts.

— with files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly, The Canadian Press

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