Quebec's plan to ban religious symbols amounts to a 'witch hunt,' teacher says

Bouchera Chelbi has been teaching English to kids in Montreal for a decade. But if Quebec's incoming government has its way, she and other religious believers could be forced to decide between her faith and her job.

Incoming government says those who don't comply with coming law could lose their jobs

Bouchera Chelbi, who wears a hijab, has been teaching elementary school in Montreal for a decade. Quebec's incoming government wants to ban teachers from wearing religious symbols. (Submitted by Bouchera Chelbi)

Bouchera Chelbi has been teaching English to elementary schoolchildren in Montreal for a decade. But if Quebec's incoming government has its way, she could be forced to decide between her religious faith and her job.

The Coalition Avenir Québec, which won a majority in this week's provincial election, is promising to introduce a law prohibiting civil servants — including judges, police officers, prosecutors and teachers — from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.

"We know it's going to happen. But am I going to accept it without fighting? No, I don't think so," said Chelbi, likening the proposal to a "witch hunt."

Chelbi, 47, said she has been wearing a hijab since age 17 — when she decided, herself, as a matter of faith — in her native Algeria. She can't imagine taking it off now.

"Even my husband cannot choose what I should wear. Why would I take orders from a man I never met?" she said, referring to the incoming CAQ premier, François Legault.

A representative for the CAQ government said Wednesday that those who don't comply with the coming law could be re-assigned or lose their employment altogether.

The CAQ's promise, if it becomes law, would likely be subject to a court challenge on the grounds that violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The previous Liberal government tried to pass a religious neutrality bill that is still before the courts after it was challenged by civil rights groups.

Legault, however, has said he's prepared to use the charter's notwithstanding clause to ensure the law goes into effect.

'We've been down this road before'

Teachers' unions and school boards have been quick to condemn the CAQ's plans, which recall the failed "charter of values" put forward by the Parti Québécois in 2013.

The PQ also wanted to prohibit teachers from wearing ostentatious religious symbols, such as a hijab, kippa or large cross. Details of the CAQ's proposal have yet to be announced.

"We've been down this road before. We are against this particular position that the government wants to take," said Angela Mancini, chair of the English Montreal School Board. 

She rejected the idea that those who don't comply could be moved to "office jobs," as Legault suggested the day after his election.

Every time they start talking about Muslim women in the media, we have problems in the street.- Bouchera Chelbi, teacher

"I wouldn't agree with that. I think if somebody is good at what they do and encourages kids to learn in the classroom, I would like to keep them there," she said.

One of the province's largest teachers' unions, the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement, takes the position that the state, and the province's educational programs, should be secular, but not the people who work in them.

President Sylvain Mallette said the stance is "based on reality and experience."

"Teachers aren't out there trying to convert their students," he said.

Mallette couldn't give an estimate of how many teachers would be affected by such a ban, but he said that, "even if it was just one person, we would defend this position on principle."

François Legault, Quebec's premier-designate, has vowed to focus on education and health care in the early part of his mandate. But he also wants to introduce a ban on religious symbols that would apply to some civil servants. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Decade-old debate

Faced with questions about the policy, Legault and other representatives from the incoming government have pointed out that polls suggest a majority of Quebecers agree with the position.

The CAQ spokesperson also referred to the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor report on religious accommodation, which suggested public servants in positions of authority, such as police, prosecutors and judges should be prohibited from wearing religious symbols. The report, however, did not recommend the ban be applied to teachers.

The proposal has raised concern not only among Muslim women, but Jewish men who wear a kippa and Christians who wear a cross.

"I'm a Christian and for years now I've been wearing this cross," said Shawn Browne, who teaches physical education at the Montreal-area Hampstead Elementary School. "It keeps me pushing, keeps me focused."

Browne isn't sure if he will be required to take it off or if, for instance, hiding it under his T-shirt would be acceptable.

Such questions are where Quebec's longstanding debate about religious accommodation often falls apart.

Shawn Browne, who teaches physical education at the Montreal-area Hampstead Elementary School, is Christian and wears a cross every day. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

"The problem with the debate over reasonable accommodation is in the application. People may be in favour in theory, but in practice it's a different story," said Christian Bourque, vice president at the Montreal polling firm Leger Marketing.

"As soon as you ask Quebecers, is it OK if we fire somebody because he or she is wearing that religious symbol and Quebecers say, of course not."

Bourque said the "real controversy" will come when the bill is tabled and there are hearings and court challenges. But he doesn't believe it's imminent.

For Chelbi, though, even talk of such a ban brings back dark memories from when the PQ's proposed charter dominated public debate.

"I remember many of my friends had psychological breakdowns. They were sick," she said.

"Every time they start talking about Muslim women in the media, we have problems in the street."

With files from Matt D'Amours and CBC Montreal's Radio Noon


Benjamin Shingler is a reporter with CBC in Montreal covering health and current affairs. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.