Quebec's religious symbols ban dashed dreams and sparked hate, witnesses testify on 1st day of Bill 21 trial

A test of the constitutionality of Quebec's secularism law began Monday, with several witnesses testifying the law derailed their teaching careers and has made them feel excluded from Quebec society.

Groups argue secularism law unfairly bars Muslim women from public sector jobs, such as teaching and law

Quebec's secularism law, which was passed last year despite protests from civil rights groups and religious minorities, is facing four different lawsuits that claim it violates the Constitution in a number of different ways. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A test of the constitutionality of Quebec's secularism law began Monday amid tearful testimony from Muslim and Sikh teachers who said the law derailed their careers and made them targets of bigotry.

The law, which was passed last year despite protests from civil rights groups and religious minorities, is facing four different lawsuits that claim it violates the Constitution in a number of different ways.

All the lawsuits take issue with provisions in the law that prohibit public teachers, as well as government lawyers and other civil servants, from wearing religious symbols at work.

On the first day of the trial, the plaintiffs called witnesses in an effort to demonstrate the law has upended the personal and professional lives of religious minorities in the province. 

Messaouda Dridj, an elementary school teacher in Montreal, said it was a childhood dreams of hers to immigrate to Quebec from her native Algeria. She arrived in 2004, drawn by the province's francophone culture and tolerant society.

Quebec's National Assembly passed Bill 21 in 2019 as part Premier François Legault's effort to bring religious neutrality to the province. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

When Dridj, who wears a hijab, was unable to find work as an electrical engineer, she became a teacher. But under the grandfather clause in the law, she can no longer be promoted, switch positions or teach at a different school, unless she removes her hijab. 

That, she told the court, would mean losing part of her identity. "I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror," she said.

'Quebec is an inhospitable environment'

Dridj broke into tears as she expressed her frustration at being unable to pursue different career opportunities, unlike her colleagues who don't wear religious symbols.

She said the spirit of tolerance that she first experienced in Quebec disappeared during the acrimonious public debate that accompanied the passage of secularism law, widely known in English as Bill 21.

"People would honk at me and say 'go home,'" she said.

Ichrak Nourel Hak, who launched a legal challenge against Bill 21 hours after it was passed, said it ended her dream of teaching in a public school, forcing her to look for work in the private system instead.

"I feel excluded from Quebec society," said Hak, who also wears the hijab. "I am a Muslim woman, but I am also a Quebec citizen."

Amrit Kaur, a Sikh woman from Montreal who wears a turban (dastar), told the court she was forced to take a teaching job in British Columbia after she finished her education degree in 2019.

"My faith plays no role in the classroom. I am expected to teach what's in the curriculum," she said.

As a former spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization, Kaur was a public opponent of Bill 21, which made her a target of abuse on social media. "Quebec is an inhospitable environment," she said.

WATCH | Muslim rights group calls Bill 21 'shameful':

'Shameful' that Bill 21 exists, says CEO of Muslim-Canadian council

3 years ago
Duration 1:04
It's 'shameful' Bill 21 exists and that a Sikh teacher, Amrit Kaur, had to leave the province due to the law, says National Council of Canadian Muslims CEO Mustafa Farooq.  

Major obstacle facing plaintiffs

Illustrating the harms of Bill 21 forms only one part of the case against the Quebec government. 

The more difficult task for the plaintiffs will be convincing Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc André Blanchard that these harms are relevant, from a legal point of view.

Quebec has invoked the notwithstanding clause, which prevents the plaintiffs from appealing to the sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect freedom of religion and prohibit discrimination based on gender or race.

That has forced the plaintiffs to build their case on less tested jurisprudence. Their arguments include the claim that the law violates the Quebec Act of 1774, transgresses "unwritten principles" of the Constitution and is the equivalent of criminal legislation.

Demonstrators stand outside the courthouse on the first day of the constitutional challenge to Bill 21 before the Quebec Superior Court in Montreal. 'I was told that my husband won't let me work. I did not know that my husband is François Legault,' reads the sign above. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Lawyers for the government did not speak with reporters and were circumspect in the courtroom on Monday, asking few questions when cross-examining the witnesses.

But in documents already filed with the court, it appears Quebec will argue the province's legislature should be able to arrange state-religion relations as it sees fit, without interference from the courts.

It will claim, too, that Bill 21 amounts to a moderate response to long-running unease in Quebec about the place of religion in the public sphere.

With such important questions at stake in the trial, many legal observers are already expecting it will eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

Linked to systemic racism

Outside the courtroom, both literally and figuratively, Bill 21 faces renewed opposition from civil society groups who have targeted the law as part of a broader struggle against systemic racism.

On Monday morning, before the trial began, dozens of law students from McGill University joined anti-racism activists on the steps of Superior Court building in Montreal for a brief demonstration.

They called Bill 21 "racist," saying it disproportionately affects people of colour, creates "second-class citizens" and is "legalized discrimination."

"For us, a law that discriminates on the basis of religious symbols has no place in 2020. It is something that will encourage systemic racism and inflame Islamophobia in Quebec," said Fanny Caire, a law student at McGill University. 

The trial continues Tuesday morning, and is likely to run at least four weeks.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at