Montreal teacher has a message for the CAQ: 'I teach, I do not convert'

As a teacher with more than 18 years of experience, it is appalling to think that my professionalism is being questioned by my new provincial government, the Coalition Avenir Québec.

Westmount High teacher Sabrina Jafralie says she wouldn't choose between her career and her faith

Sabrina Jafralie, who teaches Ethics and Religious Culture, wears 2 religious symbols. (Lauren McCallum/CBC)

As a teacher with more than 18 years of experience, it is appalling to think that my professionalism is being questioned by my new provincial government, the Coalition Avenir Québec.

Born and raised in Quebec, I grew up in a home filled with interfaith harmony. My dad was a practising Muslim. My mom is a practising Christian. I go to church regularly on Sundays and also attend mosque from time to time. My parents always thought I was doubly blessed.

Perhaps that is why I strive to ensure that all my students are open-minded, well-rounded critical thinkers.

And yet, the CAQ would like to reduce my teaching career to two symbols that I wear: a tasbeeh (Muslim prayer beads) and my tattoo of a hamza (or Hand of Fatima), a Middle Eastern talisman recognized in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
High school teacher Sabrina Jafralie has a tattoo on her forearm of a hamza, a Middle Eastern talisman recognized in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (Submitted by Sabrina Jafralie)

In 2013, when Pauline Marois proposed the "Charter of Values" (Bill 60), I had an overwhelming need to speak out against it. I clearly committed to protesting against a bill that discriminated against me and my colleagues.

After the bill died on the order paper following an election call in 2014, I thought, perhaps naively, that this type of bill would not resurface in a pluralistic Quebec. Yet, four years later, I find myself in the same position — protesting to protect the fundamental rights of members of my school community.

The CAQ's proposal to ban religious symbols for some civil servants is problematic for several reasons.

Erasing cultural diversity?

First, the CAQ deems the crucifix a heritage symbol. However, this in no way erases its religious symbolism for millions of Catholics around the world and in Quebec.

The crucifix does not lose its religious meaning simply because it is also part of our province's heritage.

The very fact that it remains in the National Assembly shows hypocrisy and, even more so, begs the question: is this an attempt to further rewrite Quebec's history and reduce the contributions of others such as Indigenous peoples, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs?

This argument smells like a revisionist attempt to erase the cultural diversity that has made Quebec society what it is.

Additionally, why is it acceptable to single out religions whose adherents wear head coverings? Why should a suit-wearing evangelical Christian have the opportunity to be a judge, a police officer or a teacher, but not a Sikh whose turban symbolizes a commitment to the poor and the oppressed?

This proposed ban singles out those religions that happen to require some form of outward expression. These are not the actions of a neutral state but rather one that has clearly lost touch with its own democratic and inclusive values.
Sabrina Jafralie says having a tattoo of a religious symbol on her arm has no bearing on her ability to teach. (Submitted by Sabrina Jafralie)

As the leader of the province whose population represents the largest linguistic minority in Canada, one would think that this point would not be lost on Premier François Legault.

Apparently understanding the basics of a high school civics course is not a criterion for becoming premier.

Let me be absolutely clear that I do not agree with any teacher using their classroom to proselytize, whether it is for religious or non-religious purposes.

That being said, it is impossible for any teacher to be perfectly neutral. The problem is not that teachers have views; it only becomes a problem if teachers use their power to impose their views in a way that hinders the free exploration of ideas and critical thinking.

To trust all teachers to be professional in their interactions with students, except those who happen to wear religious symbols, is hypocritical and discriminatory.
Sabrina Jafralie was raised in an inter-faith home. She goes to church on Sundays and wears a tasbeeh, Muslim prayer beads, on her wrist. (Submitted by Sabrina Jafralie)

If the CAQ would like to force me into an impossible choice — my faith or my career — frankly, I would not make that choice.

I would continue to be a teacher and a religious believer.

To hide one's identity, whether religious or otherwise, is inauthentic. It does not allow teachers to build meaningful relationships based on trust, openness and respect with their students.

I will say one last thing to the CAQ and its members: if you would like training to improve your civic religious literacy, I am a co-founding director of the Centre for Civic Religious Literacy and would be happy to help.

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Sabrina Jafralie

Teacher of Ethics and Religious Culture

Sabrina Jafralie, PhD, is a teacher at Westmount High School, where she teaches the Ethics and Religious Culture program. She is also a McGill University course lecturer and is co-founding director of the Centre for Civic Religious Literacy.