As It Happens

Quebec's religious symbols law 'impossible to enforce,' says English school board head

Russell Copeman, the head of the Quebec English School Board Association, says he doesn't think there will be a great deal of co-operation within his schools to enforce the province's religious symbols ban. 

Russell Copeman, of the Quebec English School Board Association, calls Bill 21 'Kafkaesque'

People attend a demonstration to protest against the Quebec government's Bill 21 in Montreal, Monday, June 17, 2019. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The head of the Quebec English School Board Association is calling the province's controversial religious symbols law "Kafkaesque," saying principals will not be able to enforce it.  

Late Sunday night, Quebec passed the Bill 21 into law. Among other things, it bars public school teachers, police officers and government lawyers from wearing religious symbols at work. You can see the entire list of affected jobs is here

A last minute change to the bill gave the government the power to enforce the ban in institutions, such as school boards, by imposing sanctions if they do not comply. 

Russell Copeman, the executive director of the Quebec English School Board Association, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how the law will play out in schools. Here is part their conversation.  

As you know, at the last minute the Quebec government put in measures in this law to make sure it is enforced to designate monitors who can impose sanctions. What does that mean for schools?  

It's going to be a huge challenge. But I mean we sort of begin from the principle that this bill is just going to be very difficult, if not impossible to enforce.

The Premier, for example, was asked — because it covers jewlery — whether a wedding ring is considered a religious symbol. And initially really couldn't answer.

So the spectre of principals and vice principals wandering halls of public schools in Quebec, trying to figure out who is entitled to wear a religious symbol and who isn't, is very disturbing.

So how does the school actually enforce this?

That's a very good question. It's gonna be a huge challenge.

Our association of administrators have already said that they find the bill distasteful.

Picture if you will a principal or vice principal walking the halls of a school ... there will be certain employees who can wear religious symbols, certain [others] who cannot, depending on the category of employment, depending on when they were hired and depending on whether they consider what they're wearing to be a religious symbol.

It's a bit Kafkaesque.

Russell Copeman is the executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, which represents nine English-language school boards across the province. (CBC)

What kind of position does this put school principals in then?

Very, very difficult.

It's not something they want to do. I mean they feel very strongly that the bill is divisive and unnecessary.

There's not going to be a great deal of co-operation, I don't think, from administrators in English public schools in the enforcement of this legislation.

How does it affect hiring, not just the teachers but I mean you have school monitors, lunchroom monitors, people who volunteer. I mean what effect does it have on the ability to recruit people to work in schools?

The odd thing is that the provisions of the bill apply only to teachers in the school system. To teachers, vice principals and principals.

So ... the new hires in those categories will be informed that they must respect the law. But ... you can have school monitors, you can have the school daycare workers, in the same building down the hall who are authorized to wear these religious symbols and that's, you know, part of the challenge.

What effect does this have on the kids ... who are in this environment?

There's already been some anecdotal evidence … reported by parents, for example, that some younger students have come back and said, "Why is Miss So-and-So not welcome in our school?"

Students are not impervious to stimuli around them. They picked up some of these issues and are reflecting back their concerns which, you know, are that these are wonderful teachers and wonderful people who are devoted to their profession.

People attend a demonstration to protest against the Quebec government's Bill 21 in Montreal, Monday, June 17, 2019. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press )

And what effect might it have on the kids and their regard for ... their fellow pupils who might be wearing hijabs or kippahs or turbans?

It goes to the whole notion of what kind of a society are we. Are we a welcoming, open and tolerant society, which I believe Quebec is by the way.

And so it's bound to have some effect.

Now you know the government says it won't, it shouldn't. But we're already seeing for example students in various faculties of education going ... if you force me to make this choice I will not become a teacher in Quebec.

At a time when there's a teacher shortage and we need to recruit professionals, we need teachers and we need teachers from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds because we believe that enriches the classroom experience and enriches Quebec.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.