Muslim teachers in Quebec disappointed as landmark religious symbols ruling faces appeal

Montreal

English school boards in Quebec started hearing from prospective teachers hoping for a job shortly after this week's court decision on the province's religious symbols law. But those hopes were undone after it became clear the ban will remain in effect pending an appeal.

Furheen Ahmed, a teacher at Westmount High School in Montreal, spoke to the media after the court ruling on Quebec's secularism law this week. A Quebec Superior Court upheld most of the province's religious symbols ban, but made and exception for English-language schools.(Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Amar Al-Shakfa dropped off her CV at a Montreal school on Wednesday, a day after learning English school boards would be exempt from the province's ban on religious symbols under a new court ruling.

Al-Shakfa, a 25-year-old Montrealer who wears a hijab, believed the decision meant she could get a job in an English public school when she graduates later this year.

"I was very excited. I was jumping all around. It was unexpected for me," Al-Shakfa said in an interview.

Her hopes, however, were dashed hours later, when it became clear that the ban will remain in effect pending an appeal.

"It's just so frustrating. It's so crazy that they are doing all this for a piece of fabric," she said.

The Quebec Superior Court ruling declared Tuesday that Bill 21, the provincial law banning teachers from wearing religious symbols at work, interfered with minority language education rights protected by the Constitution.

Appeal blunts exemption ruling

A spokesperson for the English Montreal School Board said the board started hearing from applicants like Al-Shakfa soon after the decision landed.

"We were quite excited and started receiving calls from people who we were going to proceed and interview," said Mike Cohen.

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said the province would appeal the decision shortly after it was announced. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

He noted the board, like most educational institutions in the province, is coping with a shortage of teachers.

But the Quebec government has signalled it will appeal the decision, effectively freezing it from having any effect until the case is heard again at a higher court, which could take at least a year.

Al-Shakfa, is still hoping to get a job in Quebec. She studied environmental science at Montreal's Concordia University, and is nearly finished her master's in education at McGill University.

But for now she has set her sights on trying to find a position teaching science in a private school, where the religious symbols ban doesn't apply.

"I was born in Canada," she said. "Teaching was always my passion so it's not going to stop me."

Ruling highlights diversity in English system

Other than the exemption for English schools, the Superior Court decision largely left Bill 21 intact.

But that exemption sparked outrage in nationalist circles, prompting concerns the judge was allowing the anglophone community to disobey laws passed by Quebec's National Assembly.

On Wednesday, the legislature unanimously passed a motion saying its laws "apply everywhere in Quebec."

In carving out the exception for Anglo schools, Justice Marc-André Blanchard highlighted the importance these schools place on "celebrating religious and ethnic diversity."

This diversity, he said, represented an asset to both students and other teachers, and was an integral part of the anglophone community's culture.

Elsewhere in the decision, Blanchard noted the effects of the religious symbols ban would be felt in particular by Muslim women who wear the hijab.

Bill 21 violated both their religious freedoms and freedom of expression, Blanchard said. But, he added, because the government invoked the notwithstanding clause, those violations can't be used as grounds for invalidating the law.

Minority language education rights, on the other hand, are not subjected to the override clause.

Limited options, progress stunted

With no prospect of relief from the ban in the near future, many Muslim teachers are now being forced to confront, yet again, feeling excluded from Quebec social life.

Maha Kassef, who wears a hijab and teaches at a French elementary school on Montreal's West Island, was able to keep her job after the law passed in 2019 because of a grandfather clause.

But she can't be promoted or work anywhere else in the province without being forced to remove her headscarf.

Students and staff at Westmount High School show their support for the court ruling against parts of Bill 21. The high school is part of the English Montreal School Board, one of the plaintiffs in the case. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Kassef had aspirations of becoming a principal. Instead, she works part-time as a homeroom teacher for grades 2 and 4.

"It's weird, but I've done everything that any Quebecer does in their life," she said. "To be presented with something like this, it just made me feel like I'm less of a person, less of a human being."

Nadia Zaidi resigned from her job as an elementary school teacher last year, even though the grandfather clause allowed her to keep working.

"I would never have the courage to one day explain to my students that I was able to keep my hijab [only] because I was hired a couple of years ago," she said.

Zaidi said she is considering leaving Quebec with her family because of the law.

"You realize that in the province you grew up in, you no longer feel at the same level as everybody else just because of my faith and because I choose to wear a hijab," Zaidi said.

With files from Simon Nakonechny and Alex Leduc

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