Montreal

Hijab-wearing teacher threatens to leave Quebec if secularism bill becomes law

Chahira Battou said she will sooner leave Quebec than remove her headscarf or work alongside someone with more rights than her.

'We're paid really badly in Quebec, and then, on top of that, he wants me to remove my veil?' teacher asks

'I wouldn’t let a man tell me to wear it, I won’t let a man tell me to remove it,' Chahira Battou said of Premier François Legault and his government's Bill 21. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Chahira Battou said she would sooner leave Quebec than remove her hijab, a sign of her Muslim faith, only to live and work in a society where her rights are trampled.

"How can I work with another colleague who has more rights than me?" Battou asked.

That's the Montreal schoolteacher's response to the tabling Thursday of the Quebec government's controversial secularism bill.

Bill 21, which sets out to ensure the religious neutrality of the state, would prohibit any public worker in a position of authority, including new public school teachers, from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs.

Under the bill's provisions, teachers who wear religious symbols and are already working in the public school system would be exempted from the ban — but only as long as they keep the same job in the same school board.

The exemption was included in the bill in an attempt to garner more support for the secularism legislation, Premier Francois Legault said.

"What I want to try to do in the next few weeks is to unite as many Quebecers as possible," Legault said.

Battou has worked for four years as a substitute teacher for the Marguerite Bourgeoys school board, so the grandfather clause would apply to her — as long as she stays put.

"You're allowed to keep your veil, but you're not allowed to be promoted," Battou remarked. "What does it mean? It's clearly discrimination."

Prepared to relocate

Battou said her first instinct when she learned details of the bill was to laugh, then she decided she would become a vocal opponent of Legault and his proposed legislation.

"I wouldn't let a man tell me to wear [the hijab]. I won't let a man tell me to remove it," she said.

"We're paid really badly in Quebec, and then, on top of that, he wants me to remove my veil while I teach?" 

She is resolved to leave the province if the law passes.

If others follow suit, it will exacerbate Quebec's existing teacher shortage, Battou points out. And she says meeting teachers of diverse backgrounds is a plus, not a minus, for Quebec students.

"One teacher veiled here and there won't change a Quebecer's life, it just makes students more inclusive," Battou said.

Attack on religious freedom: teachers' union

Bill 21 is already being widely condemned by teachers' unions and by school boards.

Sylvain Mallette, president of the Fédération autonome de l'Enseignement, a labour group representing representing 43,000 teachers, said the proposal amounts to an attack on religious freedom and the rule of law.

Quebec Premier François Legault's government tabled its controversial secularism bill Thursday, which would ban public servants in positions of authority, including newly hired teachers, from wearing religious symbols. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"Not only does this bill violate freedom of religion and conscience, but it also threatens the working conditions of teachers," he said.

Just weeks ago, the province announced a plan to expand kindergarten to four-year-olds across the province, starting with 250 new classrooms next fall.

That promise will require school boards to hire hundreds of new teachers.

The Quebec English School Boards Association, which represents English-language school boards across the province, said the bill goes against the spirit of inclusiveness its schools have tried to foster.

"Bill 21 is a divisive and an unnecessary piece of legislation that can only lead to societal discrimination," Dan Lamoureux, the association's president, said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the evening before the bill was tabled, the English Montreal School Board adopted a motion saying it won't implement the law if it is adopted.

With files from Alison Northcott and Benjamin Shingler

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