Montreal

Quebec's ban on religious symbols threatens education, health of minorities, trial hears

The Quebec law than bars public teachers from wearing religious symbols at school is likely to cause lasting damage to the education of minority groups and imperil the health and safety of Muslim women in the province, according to expert testimony heard in Quebec Superior Court on Wednesday.

Secularism law could lead to increase in hate crimes, suicides among Muslims, expert says

Quebec's secularism law, commonly known as Bill 21, is facing four different challenges to its constitutionality. The plaintiffs say it violates minority-language educational rights. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The Quebec law that bars public teachers from wearing religious symbols at school is likely to cause lasting damage to the education of minority groups and imperil the health and safety of Muslim women in the province, according to expert testimony heard Wednesday in Quebec Superior Court.

The law, commonly known as Bill 21, is facing four different challenges to its constitutionality. The plaintiffs include the English Montreal School Board, which is arguing Bill 21 violates its minority language educational rights.

As part of its lawsuit against the government, the school board joined the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement, a teachers union also contesting the law, in commissioning a report about the effects of a diverse teaching staff. 

The report, prepared by Thomas Dee — a professor at Stanford University's department of education — notes there is a broad academic consensus about the benefits of having teachers from different cultural backgrounds.

But his reports says Bill 21 will likely discourage diverse teachers from working in Quebec's public school system, and that will hurt students.

A report prepared by a professor at Stanford University notes there is a broad academic agreement about the benefits of having teachers from different cultural backgrounds. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"A ban on the wearing of religious symbols among primary and secondary teachers is likely to reduce teacher diversity and to have negative effects on multiple student outcomes," Dee wrote in his report.

Dee testified remotely on Wednesday. He said Quebec's ban on religious symbols sends a message to students from minority religious communities that they are not welcome at school.

He said a sense of belonging is necessary for minority students to enjoy academic success.

"The ban is likely to harm students educationally and economically," Dee testified, adding that education outcomes are linked to later success on the labour and higher levels of civic engagement.

He also said driving diverse teachers out of the profession would harm white students as well.

Diverse teachers are more likely to work in poor neighbourhoods that have difficulty recruiting high-quality educators. And they encourage white students to shed implicit biases. 

"Putting [majority students] into contact with visible difference causes them to evaluate people not through stereotypes but rather through their character, words and actions," he said.

"I think this is important because it is something that contributes to long-run civic engagement and developing a citizenry that is comfortable with democratic pluralism."

WATCH | Bill 21 'shameful,' says Muslim rights group:

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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.   1:04

Prejudicial attitudes 

The plaintiffs also sought to demonstrate on Wednesday that the law, despite not singling out a particular religion, is widely perceived as targeting Muslims in particular. 

Eric Hehman, an assistant professor of psychology at Montreal's McGill University, presented to the court findings of a survey he conducted earlier this year for the plaintiffs.

The survey was based on a representative sample of 309 Quebecers and found they most closely associated Bill 21 with Islam and the hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women.

Hehman, an expert in inter-group relations, said laws can influence public attitudes toward certain groups, exposing them to backlash. Bill 21 is likely to have that effect in Quebec, he said.

The plaintiffs must confront Bill 21's use of the nothwithstanding clause, which shields it from legal claims that it violates religious freedom or equality rights. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)
 

"I do expect prejudicial attitudes to increase toward these various minorities ... in particular Muslim women," Hehman testified.

"That should be expected to potentially result in a host of negative outcomes, including increases in hate crimes or diminished mental health, with examples such as suicidal ideation and suicide."

During cross-examination from a lawyer from the government, Hehman acknowledged that Quebecers' perceptions of Islam are influenced by a range of factors, not solely Bill 21.

The plaintiffs challenging Bill 21 must confront its use of the nothwithstanding clause, which shields the law from legal claims that it violates religious freedom or equality rights. 

The testimony heard Wednesday is part of strategy to argue Bill 21 violates two sections of the charter that are not covered by the nothwithstanding clause: Section 23, which protects minority language education, and Section 28, a little used gender-equality provision.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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