CSDM warns prospective teachers about religious symbols, despite saying it wouldn't apply Bill 21

The Commission scolaire de Montréal began quietly including a notice in job postings saying applicants will need to comply with the law, and not wear religious symbols if they are applying for teaching or administrative positions.

Commisioner says government threats of putting CSDM under trusteeship unfair

Kindergarten teacher Haniyfa Scott is seen giving a lesson during class in Montreal. Quebec's religious symbols law prohibits new teachers from wearing religious symbols, such as a Muslim headscarf. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Quebec's largest school board appears to be falling into line when it comes to the province's new religious symbols law, despite saying earlier this summer it wouldn't apply the rules until holding further consultations.

The Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) began quietly including a notice in job postings saying applicants will need to comply with the law, and not wear religious symbols if they are applying for teaching or administrative positions.

Violaine Cousineau, a commissioner for the school board, says she made the discovery when she saw the job postings this summer.

In June, the board voted not to apply Bill 21. At the time, the board said it needed more time to consult with parents, teachers and unions on how to do so. 

Bill 21 prohibits new public teachers from wearing religious symbols such as a hijab or kippa. Teachers already on the job are exempt under a grandfather clause, provided they stay in the same position. 

CSDM Independent Commissioner Violaine Cousineau says the Quebec government has put Quebec's largest school board in a tough spot. (Marie-Laure Josselin/Radio-Canada)

Cousineau says commissioners were told about the CSDM's change in position at a recent meeting.

She says she understands that the board finds itself in a tight spot because of threats by the government that it would be put under trusteeship if it doesn't apply the law. 

"Whatever you think of the law, whether you agree with it or not, to have put people, including school boards, in this impossible situation … is disrespectful," Cousineau said Thursday on Radio-Canada's Tout un Matin.

"You can't just change such important procedures over one summer with such a vague definition of what a religious symbol is" by the government, Cousineau said.

The chair of the board, Catherine Harel-Bourdon, wouldn't confirm it reversed the decision. A spokesperson for the CSDM says the subject will be discussed at a board meeting next Wednesday.

Frustration after the change

Bouchera Chelbi, an English teacher at a CSDM school who wears a hijab, said she was disappointed. 

"I'm really frustrated, even though … deep down I knew that maybe they're going to chicken out at the end," Chelbi told CBC News. 

"They changed their minds. I'm not happy with that, neither are my colleagues. We feel like we're being abandoned by our [board]."

CSDM English teacher Bouchera Chelbi says she's frustrated by her school board's change of heart. (CBC)

Chelbi said she's heard of several young teachers already making the decision to move to other provinces as a result of the law passing.

She pointed out Quebec is already dealing with a severe shortage of teachers — which has also led to difficult working conditions, including bigger classrooms and more work. 

"We don't get the help we need, and then this law. They're young people who were ready to accept the challenge and then we denied them this right."

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said he was "really pleased" to hear the CSDM would be applying the law. 

"I'm not surprised because I've met Ms. Harel-Bourdon in June. We did clarify our expectation as a government and I think it's the expectation [in Quebec] that everybody should respect and apply the law," Roberge told reporters.

Marwah Rizqy, the Quebec Liberal Party's education critic, told reporters she understood the CSDM's position. 

"The law is in place. We definitely won't encourage civil disobedience, so the law applies," Rizqy said. "But you know the Liberal Party's position very well. We were never in favour of the secularism law."

About the Author

Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

With files from Kate McKenna, Cathy Senay and Lauren McCallum


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