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Quebec elementary school teacher reassigned from class over hijab due to Bill 21

MONTREAL — An elementary school teacher in western Quebec has been reassigned from her classroom because her hijab contravenes the province's law forbidding teachers from wearing religious symbols.

MONTREAL — An elementary school teacher in western Quebec has been reassigned from her classroom because her hijab contravenes the province's law forbidding teachers from wearing religious symbols.

Parents at Chelsea Elementary School say they found out in a letter last week the Grade 3 teacher was being moved to an "alternate role" — a literacy project for the entire school on "inclusion and awareness of diversity." Later some parents learned it was due to her hijab, which was confirmed by the teacher in an interview with local newspaper The Lowdown to Hull and Back.

The teacher, Fatemeh Anvari, did not respond to interview requests from The Canadian Press on Thursday but she told the local paper this week it has been "very emotional" for her when children ask why she is no longer teaching them. "I love Chelsea Elementary School and that is why I am still working there," she said.

“Our principal has been very supportive. If people choose to speak up, it will be most effective if they do so about the law."

Amanda DeGrace, who has children at the school in Chelsea, Que., said supporters have been hanging green ribbons on a fence in support of the teacher and are organizing a letter-writing campaign to denounce the situation to the school board and federal and provincial politicians, including Premier François Legault.

"The parents were informed the teacher would be moving out of the classroom in a separate role. Living in a small community that we do, news quickly spread of the reason behind that," DeGrace said in an interview Thursday. "As a parent of the school and in the community we live in, it's very shocking to see this bill come into action."

The secularism 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.

Wayne Daly, interim chairman of the Western Quebec School Board, said the board has made clear its opposition to the law. Parents have also been contacting the him to voice their displeasure.

"They're not happy about it. They're saying the same things we are: that it's outrageous and it shouldn't have been done, and I can't disagree with that," Daly said. "But the law went through our legislature and we as citizens elected that legislature, so if you want to change this, that's fine, you have a vote."

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.

The school boards had requested an exemption from the provision, in line with an April Quebec Superior Court ruling that struck down clauses of the law pertaining to the English-language boards. That ruling has been appealed by the province’s attorney general, which argues the law should apply without exception.

Fatema Abdalla, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, called the situation disturbing and upsetting.

"We can't understand why Canadians are so shocked right now, because we've been calling for change on Bill 21 for the last number of years, the next logical step is we need the prime minister to get up and intervene," Abdalla said.

Anvari's reassignment was defended by the Quebec government but drew strong criticism from some federal politicians.

"I think it's cowardly," federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, who represents a Montreal riding, told reporters in Ottawa. "I think we've been quite clear that this type of discrimination isn't reflective of the Quebec society I want to live in."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the situation illustrates why he's been opposed to Bill 21 all along.

"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."

But the Quebec government showed little sympathy for her plight. "This has been the law of the land," Christopher Skeete, parliamentary assistant to the provincial minister responsible for fighting racism, told a news conference Thursday. "Everyone knew this was the case, and we're proud to say we live in a secular society here in Quebec."

Meanwhile, parents with children at the school, which is about 15 kilometres north of Ottawa, are navigating the fallout from the move.

"My children are asking specifically why does this such a law exist in 2021 when we've encouraged our children … to be inclusive, to include everybody, that everyone should have an equal voice at the table," DeGrace said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2021.

— With files from Marie Woolf in Ottawa

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press