Amid political gamesmanship, some Quebec Muslim women enticed by offer to move to Manitoba

As a political spat plays out between Manitoba and Quebec over Bill 21, some Muslim women affected by the province's ban on religious symbols say they are tempted by the offer to move to the Prairie province.

'Why wouldn't I go somewhere where I feel welcome?' asks one law student who wears a hijab

Seeba Chaachouh, 24, is a law student at Montreal's McGill University who says she will seriously consider moving to Manitoba thanks to the province's ad targeting Quebecers who feel limited by Bill 21. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

As a political spat plays out between Manitoba and Quebec over Bill 21, some Muslim women affected by the province's ban on religious symbols say they are tempted by the offer to move to the Prairie province.

Seeba Chaachouh, a third-year law student at Montreal's McGill University, says she felt her options shrink after the legislation was passed into law earlier this year. She said the Manitoba government's ad campaign attempting to lure Quebecers is more than gamesmanship.

Relocating is something she will seriously consider upon graduation.

"If this persists, and as a result of this there are more hate crimes against me and my people, then why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't I go somewhere where I feel welcome?" said Chaachouh, who wears a hijab.

"I know that if I go there, they will look at my skills rather than what I am wearing on my head."

The ad campaign launched Thursday is aimed at Quebecers who feel limited by the province's secularism law, which prohibits public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols. These include the hijab, skullcap and turban.

In a nod to Bill 21, the ad lists 21 reasons why Manitoba is an appealing place to move, ranging from its diverse population to its plethora of provincial parks.

There isn't, in fact, much history of movement between the two provinces. In 2018, for example, only 341 people moved from Quebec to Manitoba (and 799 went the other way).

Watch Seeba Chaachouh explain why she is considering moving.

Muslim woman says religious symbols ban tempts her to leave Quebec

4 years ago
Duration 0:43
Amid the controversy over Bill 21, Manitoba is trying to attract Quebecers who feel the law is hurting their ability to thrive at home.

A better solution: no Bill 21

Chaachouh is under no illusions a government ad means she would be safe from discrimination in Manitoba.

At the very least, though, Chaachouh said it is encouraging to see a province take a stand against the legislation, while Ottawa has shied away from doing the same.

The Manitoba government's campaign was dismissed as a political ploy by Premier François Legault and much of the opposition in Quebec City.

Legault said Bill 21 will ensure secularism in the public sector, and that the law is "a decision to be taken by Quebecers and Quebecers only."

Members of the National Council of Muslims leave the Quebec Court of Appeal in Montreal on Tuesday, where they are challenging Quebec's Bill 21. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

But Shahad Salman, a lawyer who runs a public relations firm in Montreal, said the message appealed to her as well.

"The fact that they used 21 reasons — that made me laugh," she said.

"I think it's an interesting move from another province: They take something bad happening somewhere else and turn it into a good thing for them."

Salman, 32, said she would consider such a move. But a better solution? "Not having Bill 21," she said.

The legislation is facing multiple legal challenges.

Critics say it infringes on a person's right to practice their religion, and disproportionately targets Muslim women who wear a headscarf.

In a Quebec Court of Appeal hearing earlier this week, civil rights groups argued the law is causing immediate and irreparable harm.

"People's lives are being ruined. People are being forced to leave their professions. People are being forced to leave this province," Catherine McKenzie, a lawyer representing the groups, told the court.

Fighting inside Quebec

Nour Farhat, a 28-year-old Montrealer who recently completed a master's in criminal law, is involved in one of the legal challenges.

She says the law thwarted her dream of becoming a Crown prosecutor in Quebec.

She said the Manitoba ad was like "a breath of fresh air," and such a move is appealing.

Nour Farhat is a Montreal lawyer. She had dreams of becoming a Crown prosecutor before Bill 21 became law. (CBC)

But Farhat, who works in litigation, has no plans to leave.

"Why can't I be this person here, where I was born and raised? Why do I have to go to the other side of the country to realize my dream?" she said. "This is why I won't go to any other province — because I want to be able to do this here in Quebec."


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate change, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

With files from CBC's Alison Northcott and Justin Hayward