Montreal

Quebec school boards fall in line over religious symbols law despite opposition

School boards in Quebec have, one by one, opted to comply with the province's religious symbols law banning them from wearing religious symbols on the job. Teachers are feeling the effects.

Protesting teachers say they are concerned about the message the new law sends

Several dozen people protested outside a Commission scolaire de Montréal board meeting Wednesday. The board has decided to apply the new religious symbols law. (Radio-Canada)

Facing pressure from the government, school boards in Quebec have, one by one, opted to comply with the province's secularism law banning public teachers from wearing religious symbols on the job.

The English Montreal School Board, which had come out strongly against Bill 21 before it had even been tabled, avoided a debate on the issue at a meeting Wednesday.

The commissioners' decision to put off the planned discussion effectively means the EMSB will implement the law.

"It remains for me, a great concern, because the community and the board has a long history of acceptance and diversity," board chair Angela Mancini said on Daybreak.

Mancini said the EMSB may revisit the issue at the end of September after the human resources committee studies the issue.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge had threatened to put any board that did not comply with the law under trusteeship.

The Commission scolaire de Montréal, the province's largest school board, as well the Lester B. Pearson School Board, also decided to follow the law, after earlier expressing reservations on moral and practical grounds.

Several dozen people protested outside the CSDM's meeting Wednesday, pushing back against the board's decision.

A chill in the classroom

The restriction on religious symbols only applies to new teachers, but veterans of the classroom said they too are feeling a chill as a result of the law.

Earlier this week, about 50 parents published an open letter in Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper saying they don't want their children taught by teachers wearing religious symbols exempt under a grandfather clause.

Dalila Matoub, who teaches at a school in the city's Rosemont neighbourhood, said she was alarmed to be the target of such a request herself.

She said a parent tried to get their child moved out of her class because she wears a headscarf.

"It really affected me," said Matoub, who is originally from Algeria and has taught for 27 years.

"Teaching runs through my veins."

Dalila Matoub, who has been teaching for 27 years, said a parent tried to have a child moved out of her class because she wears a headscarf. (Radio-Canada)

Bouchera Chelbi, another veteran teacher at Wednesday's meeting who also wears a headscarf, said the law has been a source of stress and makes her feel targeted, even if she is exempt from the ban.

"It's as if someone said to me, 'You've committed no crime and we won't send you to prison, but we're going to put an electronic bracelet on you,'" she said.

'The law is the law'

Asked about whether he's concerned about how the law will affect teachers inside schools, Roberge skirted around the question.

"I think Bill 21 is pretty clear. New teachers won't be allowed to wear religious symbols. But the law doesn't give new powers to parents to select their teachers," he said.

Roberge said he is satisfied, but not surprised, that school boards have decided to follow the new rules.

"Everyone should respect the law. The law is the law," he said. "It's not a question that we have to take each time a law is voted on."

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge says he's satisfied school boards have opted to apply the secularism law banning public teachers from wearing religious symbols on the job. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Marwah Rizqy, the provincial Liberal Party's education critic, said questions remain about how the law will be enforced. She said it has created problems where none previously existed.

"We have Muslim teachers now feeling like they are not welcome in the public system," Rizqy said. "This is the effect of Bill 21."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Cathy Senay, Radio-Canada's Normand Grondin and CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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