Montreal

'I feel a kind of rage inside me': Hijabi teachers in Quebec struggle to find way forward

Advocates say they are worried about how school boards are applying the law and how some are choosing to implement it differently. They say the discrepancies between policies highlight the law's vagueness.

Advocacy group Justice Femme says secularism law is so vague, school boards all apply it differently

Third-year education student Ines Boudechiche can still legally wear her hijab as a substitute teacher for the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l'Île, but she doesn't know what will happen when she begins her internship with the board this coming winter. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Fatima Boularhmane isn't sure where to turn anymore.

She and her husband and children emigrated from Morocco about a decade ago, lured by the idea of living in a free and democratic country. 

Trained as an electrical engineer, Boularhmane tried in vain to get a job in her field — even after having her education assessed against Canadian standards and getting an additional certificate in industrial engineering technology at Montreal's Collège Ahuntsic.

"The telephone interviews would go well, but then when I'd go in for a meeting, they would tell me I was overqualified," she said. 

Boularhmane had done some teaching in Morocco and, last year, after hearing about Quebec's teacher shortage, she began pursuing a different career path.

In May, she got a gig as a substitute science teacher at Quebec's largest school board, the Commission Scolaire de Montreal (CSDM), and was soon offered a full-time teaching contract. 

But because she wears a hijab, she had to turn the contract down.

Quebec's secularism law, passed by the CAQ government this summer, forbids civil servants in positions of authority, including teachers, lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Boularhmane says the CSDM advised her she wouldn't be able to teach unless she took her hijab off. 

Hijabi teachers pre-emptively turned away: Saad

Boularhmane, who preferred not to have her photograph taken, spoke to CBC at a recent event organized by Justice Femme, an organization that supports Muslim women facing harassment and discrimination.

Justice Femme's founder, Hanadi Saad, who organized the workshop for teachers who want to know more about the secularism law, said the law is so vague, school boards are arbitrarily choosing how to apply it.

Depending on what board they're in, "it means the teachers are being treated differently," said Saad. 

Hanadi Saad, who organized a workshop for teachers who want to know more about Quebec's new secularism law, said the law is so vague, school boards are arbitrarily choosing how to apply it. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Saad says the CSDM now includes a clause in contracts asking new hires to attest that they will not wear a religious symbol or head-covering, whether it be for religious or traditional reasons. 

She says the effect of the clause is to pre-emptively turn away prospective teachers before they have even transgressed the law.

"The law is the law. Everybody has to follow it. They don't have the right to refuse a teacher because of her veil. There are procedures, sanctions to follow [first]," Saad said. 

The CSDM did not immediately return CBC's request for comment.

Hired a month too late

The law has also had the effect of making Muslim teachers feel humiliated for a custom many have followed their whole lives, Saad said.

Boularhmane says she's felt that humiliation. 

"The last time I was at the school, it was like everyone was asking themselves whether I'd been hired before or after March 27," she said.

Boularhmane's date of hire came just over a month too late: the law states that teachers hired before March 27, 2019 may continue to wear religious symbols, as long as they do not change their job position and are not promoted. 

She says the law and its fallout have left her in a state of despair.

"I feel a kind of rage inside of me," she said. "What I wear on my body belongs to me. It's my body — whether I choose to cover it, to wear a skirt, whatever. It doesn't influence other people."

"I teach science, it has nothing to do with religion."

Lawyer William Korbatly, left, gave an information session on Bill 21 at a workshop organized by Hanadi Saad, right. Her group Justice Femme supports Muslim women affected by the new secularism law.

Lawyer William Korbatly says he's encouraging teachers to document the ways their respective school boards deal with the law, whether it be warnings from human resources, clauses in employment contracts or confrontations by colleagues about wearing a religious symbol. 

"The more we can show that this law is inapplicable, or there is a certain ambiguity or inequality in its application, the better it is," Korbatly said.

He says another aspect the law doesn't address directly is whether student teachers must follow it. 

Student teachers are unpaid and are not technically school board employees, since their internships are a required part of their university degrees — which exempts them from the law. 

'Crossing my fingers'

But at least one Montreal board, the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l'Île, has said it would refuse to allow student teachers who wear a religious symbol into its classrooms. 

Ines Boudechiche moved to Quebec from Algeria after she was accepted into Université de Montréal to study elementary education. Now a third-year student, she's been substitute teaching for the Pointe-de-l'Île board for the past two years.

The law doesn't apply to her as a substitute teacher, but Boudechiche wonders what will happen this winter when she's to begin her internship at the board.

"So far no one has told me anything," she said. "I'm crossing my fingers."

Boudechiche says she's keeping her hopes up, especially since she is on good terms with the teachers and principal at the school where she is to intern. She doesn't want to leave Quebec, although she hasn't ruled it out.

"It's a Plan B, but I don't want it to have to happen," Boudechiche.

For Boularhmane, though, teaching was the Plan B. She discovered she loves teaching, and she's now completing a master's degree in education at Université de Sherbrooke. She and her husband had been counting on her teaching job: after she got steady work at the CSDM, they moved to a larger apartment with their three children, aged two to 13. 

"It's a personal freedom that is affected," she said. "I don't want to just give up. I want to see how I can make a difference."

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.

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