Quebec's religious symbols ban causes 'irreparable harm,' teachers tell court

Civil rights groups fighting Quebec's religious symbols law have filed new evidence which, they say, demonstrates without a doubt it has "caused and continues to cause irreparable harm."

Civil rights groups file affidavits ahead of appeal set for November

Noa Mendelsohn with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, left, with Bochra Manai and Mustafa Farooq, centre and right, from the National Council of Canadian Muslims speak to reporters in July. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Civil rights groups fighting Quebec's religious symbols law have filed new evidence which, they say, demonstrates without a doubt it has "caused and continues to cause irreparable harm."

Lawyers submitted affidavits last week from Muslim women who were denied employment opportunities or internships by Montreal school boards because they wear a headscarf.

The testimony, which the plaintiffs hope will sway the courts, describes how the ban leaves aspiring teachers with a narrowing scope of career options.

"This is causing them immediate financial hardship, but also enormous uncertainty about their ability to pursue the careers they have spent years training for, as well as stress and the sense of being singled out among their peers," the plaintiffs said in a court document, submitted Sept. 20.

"This is immediate, severe, irreparable, and unacceptable prejudice."

The law, passed by the Coalition Avenir Québec government in June, bans public-sector teachers, police officers, government lawyers and other authority figures from wearing religious symbols at work.

Teachers already on the job, who remain in their current positions, are exempt under a grandfather clause.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) filed a motion challenging the law's constitutionality only hours after it went into effect.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Michel Yergeau rejected a request for an emergency injunction in July, saying there was no evidence the law had caused irreparable harm.

Another request to suspend the law will be heard this fall, on Nov. 26, at the Quebec Court of Appeal.

One Montreal-born woman describes in her affidavit how she's had to take a job working 16 hours a week at a private school after being unable to get a full-time job.

She told two Montreal school boards she was willing to remove her hijab in front of the children, but would need to be accommodated by having no male aides in the classroom.

The woman, a graduate of McGill University's education program, said she didn't hear back from either the Lester B. Pearson School Boards or the Commission scolaire de Montréal.

"Now, I am depressed and anxious, and I feel like a second-class citizen in my own province," she said in the document.

Another woman, who wears a hijab and has worked for years as a preschool and primary school teacher, said she tried to secure a position with the Commission Scolaire Marie-Victorin, in Montreal's South Shore, at the end of last year in order to qualify for the grandfather clause.

At the beginning of September, she was told she no longer had a job if she didn't remove her hijab. Now, she works as a school monitor at another school, with a lower salary.

"I had to find a job, but I cannot take off my hijab," she said in her affidavit.

The names of the women were withheld on their affidavits. Their lawyers contend being identified could have personal and professional consequences.

There are four criteria for a judge to grant an injunction: a law must raise serious constitutional questions, cause irreparable harm, its suspension must not be overly inconvenient and the matter must be urgent.

In his July decision, Yergeau found the plaintiffs had only satisfied the first condition.

The civil rights groups argued in last week's court filing that the judge erred in saying the other criteria weren't satisfied. 

They said, furthermore, that there is no longer any question that the impact of the law is "hypothetical."


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.