Montreal

Quebec's largest school board won't apply religious symbols law — at least for now

The Commission Scolaire de Montréal voted unanimously to delay apply Quebec's new secularism law until a proper consultation process with its internal groups can be carried out.

CSDM will hold consultations on law that could run until fall 2020

Teacher Bouchera Chelbi attended the CSDM's meeting on the religious symbols law and said the outcome was 'positive.' (Radio-Canada)

The Commission Scolaire de Montréal voted unanimously Wednesday to delay the application of Quebec's religious symbols law until a proper consultation process with its internal groups can be carried out.

The consultations could last until the fall of 2020, the CSDM said in a news release.

For elementary school teacher Bouchera Chelbi, who has spoken out against the ban, the night was positive.

"We saw an inability to apply the law at the CSDM," she said. 

Chelbi has been wearing a hijab since age 17 — when she made the decision herself, as a matter of faith, in her native Algeria. She said she can't imagine taking it off now.

She would keep her job because of a grandfather clause in the new law, but she doesn't like that it would create a two-tiered system within the school board.

"With all the problems we have with recruiting and keeping teachers, I think we can't limit the new people that we can have and want to keep," she said.

According to Catherine Harel-Bourdon, president of the CSDM, the delay in applying the new law is so that the school board can consult with its stakeholders: parents, teachers, unions and other groups.

"We want to have a democratic strategy," Harel-Bourdon said.

"The decision made by the commissioners gives us a year to understand how to change the rules so that they are clear for everyone."

The CSDM is the province's largest public school board with 17,000 employees and 114,000 students.

Catherine Harel-Bourdon, president of the CSDM, said a teacher shortage was one factor, but pursuing a democratic process within the school board was the main reason applying the religious symbols law has been delayed. (CBC)

Marc-André Gosselin, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, told CBC News the rules must be applied now that the bill has been passed into law.

Chelbi wonders how the government proposes to enforce it, however.

"Will police officers go into a school and see a woman wearing a hijab and give her a ticket? Unless they describe all their credentials to be grandfathered?" Chelbi said.

The secularism law makes it illegal for public school teachers to wear religious symbols at work.

The CAQ made last-minute changes to Bill 21, giving the government power to ensure institutions, such as school boards, comply with the law and imposing sanctions if they do not.

School teachers already on the job will be exempt from the religious symbols ban. But they will lose the exemption if they move to another school or take up another position, such as accepting a promotion to the principal's office. 

Based on reporting by CBC's Antoni Nerestant and files from Radio-Canada

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