Confusion, questions as Quebec schools forced to apply ban on religious symbols

The ban on religious symbols is now law, but Quebec school boards, teachers' unions and education faculties say they are still unclear on how it should be applied.

In midst of teacher shortage, school boards, unions, educators try to make sense of new law

Kindergarten teacher Haniyfa Scott is seen here giving a lesson in Montreal earlier this year. School boards are trying to determine how to apply Quebec's new secularism law. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Lisa Starr's job is to find internships for prospective teachers. Her task for next fall just got more complicated, now that Quebec's ban on religious symbols has been passed into law.

"I think there's a lot of confusion and a lot of questions," said Starr, a professor in McGill University's faculty of education.

While classes are finished for the summer, Starr said several university students who wear religious symbols have contacted her to find out whether their school placement will still go ahead next fall.

She said it's not clear if the ban applies to student teachers, who aren't yet public employees.

To avoid any problems, one of them has already found an alternative placement at a private school. Private schools aren't covered by the new law, which prohibits public school teachers from wearing a hijab, kippa, turban or visible crucifix at work.  

"We don't support the bill. We don't believe in what it says, but at the same time we're working with students who are affected by it," Starr said.

"It puts our students, I think, in an unsafe environment — and certainly not one that is conducive to learning about teaching."

CSDM to delay applying law

Representatives from several Quebec school boards and teachers' unions say they, too, are still trying to figure out exactly how to apply the province's new secularism law.

The province's largest school board, the French-language Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM), voted unanimously Wednesday to delay applying it.

That hasn't sat well with the Coalition Avenir Québec government.

"The Quebec government is firmly determined to ensure the obligations stemming from the law are followed. No delay will be tolerated," Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said Thursday, in a statement issued jointly with Education Minister Jean-François Roberge.

Catherine Harel-Bourdon, who chairs the biggest board in the province, says the Commission scolaire de Montréal needs more time to figure out how to apply the new secularism law. (Radio-Canada)

CSDM Chair Catherine Harel-Bourdon said her board will do its best to apply the law, even as the school board grapples with a teacher shortage.

And like other boards, the CSDM is uncertain about when it should be enforced.

It must be applied retroactively, because teachers hired before March 29, 2019 are exempt from the religious symbols ban, under a grandfather clause. But they will lose the exemption if they move to another school or take up another position, such as accepting a promotion to the principal's office. 

"There's a lot of work to do," she said Thursday. "We have 9,000 teachers."

"Who was hired before March?" 

Harel-Bourdon, who had expressed concern about Bill 21 before it became law, said there needs to be clear, concise rules to ensure everyone properly follows them.

She raised the hypothetical situation of an emergency substitute — for instance, a daycare educator, who normally works in the school's before- and after-school program, brought in to supervise a class during a snowstorm. Is it OK for that person to wear a religious symbol?

The answer is unclear, she said.

'Questionable logic'

Heidi Yetman, president of the 8,000-strong Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said she too isn't sure how the law applies to her members. She's been fielding calls from school board officials, who have their own questions.

She said there's confusion about whether substitute teachers are subject to the ban.

"It feels like a grey zone. If you're on a priority list, you have a connection with the school board," she said.

"The advice that we're given right now is, if you have a link to a school board, you are considered grandfathered."

Noel Burke, chair of the Lester B. Pearson School Board, says the board's lawyers are reviewing the final version of the law. The Pearson board voted before Bill 21 was passed to defy it. (CBC)

The Lester B. Pearson School Board adopted a resolution opposing the bill even before it was passed. Its chair, Noel Burke, said the Pearson board's lawyers are reviewing the final version of the law.

Burke said there's "questionable logic" in the legislation. He, too, raised the example of employees of before- and after-school daycares, who work in the schools. They are allowed to wear religious symbols, but teachers supervising the very same students are not.

Representatives from the New Frontier School Board and the French-language Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys also said they are analyzing the law to determine how to proceed.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is based in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter @benshingler.


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