MONTREAL — Premier François Legault said Friday a school board in western Quebec should never have hired a woman who had to be removed from her teaching duties because she wears a hijab.
Legault said the province's law restricting religious symbols, known as Bill 21, has been in place for more than two years and the Western Quebec School Board should have respected it. "The school board should have not hired this person in the first place, given Bill 21," he said at a news conference in Quebec City.
It emerged this week that a Grade 3 teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, just north of Gatineau, Que., had recently been reassigned to duties outside the classroom because of her hijab. Parents were informed the teacher, Fatemeh Anvari, would take on a literacy project for all students that "will target inclusion and awareness of diversity."
Parents and students have been vocal about the loss of a well-liked teacher, starting a letter-writing campaign and hanging green ribbons and notes of support on the school's fence.
Bill 21 prohibits the wearing of religious symbols such as hijabs, kippas and turbans by teachers and other government employees deemed to be in positions of authority. Legault said he's "at ease" with his government's actions. "Quebec has made the choice of secularism, and I think it must be respected," he said. He called the law reasonable and balanced.
"(They) should not wear religious symbols while on duty," Legault said. "At home, in the street, they can do what they want."
The Western Quebec School Board has declined to go into detail about what happened, citing confidentiality. School board chairman Wayne Daly said Friday theboard acted when it recognized there was an issue. "I'm not looking to get into a fight (with the premier)," Daly said. "I'm looking to follow the laws he's enacted at the legislature."
Russell Copeman, executive director of the Quebec English School Board Association, said the association has no data specific to hiring and Bill 21. "To our knowledge, this is the first time this has happened," Copeman said. "We are aware of applicants who might have been in the process and didn't apply, but to our knowledge, this is the first case of its kind in Quebec."
But Copeman said something like this was inevitable and that the province's English school boards — which include the Western Quebec School Board — remain firmly opposed to Bill 21.
"As we've said all along, this is a bill that runs counter to the values that we try to teach and instil in our students, the values of diversity and tolerance," he said. "We believe in the secularism of the state — that the state should be religiously neutral — but we think that should apply to institutions of the state and not to the individuals who work for the state."
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, who argues the law should apply without exception.
Liberal Opposition house leader André Fortin said the situation in Chelsea was the type his party had feared with Bill 21. "I am rather sad about this situation, sad for the children who have lost a teacher they loved, the parents who trusted that teacher," Fortin said.
Quebec solidaire's Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said the province can't afford to lose passionate teachers. "Secularism of our public institutions is an important thing, but we should not exclude people from working in the public sector because of that," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2021.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press