MONTREAL — In 2019, Quebec’s secularism law —Bill 21 — became official. It prohibits certain public service workers from wearing religious symbols at work and has disproportionately affected women who wear the hijab, an Islamic headscarf.
The law has faced several legal challenges since its inception, which claim it is a violation of human rights, perpetuates gender bias, and forces women to choose between their faith and careers. Bill 21 invoked a notwithstanding clause, shielding it from Charter challenges on religious and freedom grounds for five years.
The law’s effect continues to be felt by Muslim, Sikh and Jewish women in the province. Here are some of their stories.
Amrit Kaur, 30, teacher
June 16, 2019 is a date Amrit Kaur will never forget. “I graduated with my teaching degree in the morning and by the afternoon, Bill 21 passed into law,” Kaur said on the phone from Vancouver. The Montreal native relocated to B.C. after her teaching dreams were dashed by the new secularism law. “It was a choice put on me — either I take off my dastar (turban) or I choose a different profession,” she said.
Growing up in Montreal, Kaur said she never faced discrimination and speaks fondly of her upbringing and how her parents fell in love with the diversity and acceptance of Quebec when they moved from England when she was five years old. Kaur never expected Bill 21 to pass. “I thought it was speculation,” she said, adding the law makes Quebec appear racist. “Every person that I’ve met who’s not from Quebec, the first thing they say is: ‘Oh, Quebec is racist.’ And it does offend me because I’m like, ‘No, it’s not.’ It’s the CAQ [Coalition Avenir Québec] government ... there’s only so much defending I can do,” she said.
In B.C, Kaur says her faith is not questioned. “[B.C.] is very multicultural and there’s people who look like me [and] are progressing in their profession,” Kaur said, referencing Justice Palbinder K. Shergill, the first Sikh turbaned judge in Canada, serving on the B.C. Supreme Court. For Kaur, removing her turban is comparable to losing a limb. It’s a part of her, and she explains how Sikh women adopting the turban is a form of reclaiming equality as they’re traditionally worn by men, in upholding one of Sikhism’s articles of faith.
Now working as a high school teacher, Kaur says diversity is vital for learning. “It prepares students for the real world. You’re going to meet different types of people, you’re going to travel to different types of places, and if you already look at people of faith as deviants, what’s going to happen when you do? … Are you going to be phobic of them or are you going to say ‘Hi’? ... You’re robbing kids of that experience to get to know different types of people and to be more inclusive,” Kaur said.
Carolyn Gehr, 37, teacher
One of the concerning elements of Bill 21 is a grandfather clause that limits public servants already wearing religious symbols before the law’s passing from changing jobs or being promoted. Once they do, the law comes into effect for them. “If I wanted to be the vice principal, I would not be allowed to do so,” said Carolyn Gehr, an Orthodox Jew who wears a kerchief, a symbol she adopted after marriage in 2003.
Since she started teaching in 2006, Gehr said Quebec has suffered from a teacher shortage and there’s been many times teachers are called upon to substitute for administration positions such as vice principal, but she wouldn’t be allowed the opportunity because of the law. Gehr said school boards and administration were supportive of her and fought against Bill 21, but the government strong-armed them to fall in line, threatening to place them under trusteeship. She calls the law a “complete misunderstanding” of what religion is. “They think that religion is nothing but a set of beliefs. And it’s just the way you think,” Gehr said, explaining many religions have clothing components to them and are a way of life.
If the law continues to stand after the notwithstanding clause expires in five years, Gehr said she’d consider leaving Quebec. The math and science teacher said she’s supported by her school and community, but some teachers were not as fortunate, having received letters from parents requesting their kids be removed from classrooms because the teacher wears a hijab, for instance.
“We should see people as people first, not what they’re wearing on their head,” Gehr said.
Nour Farhat, 29, lawyer
Nour Farhat was part of the legal team representing one of the teachers union challenging Bill 21 and recalls how the seven-week trial, ending in December 2020 and awaiting judgement, was the hardest thing she’s done in her life. Inside and outside the courtroom, Farhat faced opposition and hate, for defending the rights of teachers to wear religious symbols at work. “Seeing that look of helplessness in my father’s eyes is not something I want to relive,” she said, describing the shock on her parents’ face reading the endless vitriol posted about her online.
Farhat is now in private practice, but prior to Bill 21 being enacted, she aspired to become a public prosecutor, having had positive experiences during her articling year with the government. Having worked on more than 200 cases, she described how visible minorities were delighted to see someone who looked like them in court.
However, soon after receiving her Masters in Criminal Law, Bill 21 came into effect, upending those dreams. Farhat said she’s worked hard to become a lawyer, but she can’t shake the feeling that no matter how hard she tries, those efforts feel futile.
“Bill 21 is a violation of human rights,” Nour said, explaining how invoking the notwithstanding clause —which blocked it from Charter challenges on freedom and religious grounds — opened a pandora’s box for “no reason,” setting a dangerous legal precedent.
Quebec is home for Farhat, but she questions that at times: “I say to myself: ’I’m born here, I’m a Québécoise, I’m never leaving my home.’ But, what kind of home treats you like this?”
Nadia Naqvi, 39, teacher
When Bill 21 was introduced, Nadia Naqvi said her school was up in arms — teachers and students held rallies to fight against the secularism law. However, friends at different school boards told her how colleagues expressed their support for the law, causing an uncomfortable work situation.
“I’ve had friends in the French sector, who’ve had [colleagues] come up to them, who they thought were their friends previously say: ‘Sorry but I kind of agree with [Bill 21].’ It’s kind of hypocritical when you know a person, and you have worked with them, but you silently harboured this dislike for a piece of clothing, which frankly, has nothing to do with them,” Naqvi said, who is grandfathered in and is not directly affected by the law, since she had been wearing her hijab at work prior to the law’s passing.
Naqvi suffers from neuromyelitis optica, an autoimmune disease that left her paralyzed from the chest down for almost two years. During the pandemic, she slowly regained her ability to walk and will start at a new school soon pending medical approval.
But, she wonders if she would be welcomed since the law’s passing. Naqvi adopted the hijab at 15 and said the headscarf is part of her identity and how the new law is an example of how insecure the CAQ government is since the Liberal party dominated in Montreal in the last election.
“Quebec is not a colony. Everyone is equal … the majority needs to stop thinking they can bully the minority,” Naqvi said.
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