As It Happens

Why this Quebec teacher has joined a lawsuit against Quebec's religious symbols ban

Bouchera Chelbi says Quebec's secularism law specifically targets women, especially Muslim women.

New court challenge claims Bill 21 violates Charter protections for gender equality

CSDM English teacher Bouchera Chelbi says she's frustrated by her school board's change of heart. (CBC)
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Bouchera Chelbi says Quebec's secularism law specifically targets women, especially Muslim women.

The hijab-wearing Montreal teacher is one of three plaintiffs in a legal challenge launched Thursday in Quebec Superior Court.

It's one of several constitutional challenges against the law, known as Bill 21, which bans certain civil servants — including public school teachers, government lawyers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols at work. A grandfather clause protects teachers hired before March 27, 2019.

The lawsuit filed by Chelbi and two other women alleges the law exceeds provincial jurisdiction, fails to live up to its own definition of religious freedom, and violates Section 28 of the Charter, which guarantees gender equality, because the majority of teachers in the province are women. 

The Quebec government invoked the notwithstanding clause to shield the law from Charter challenges, but Section 28 isn't subject to the clause.

Chelbi spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why she's challenging Bill 21. Here is part of their conversation. 

What is this lawsuit that you have launched against Bill 21?

Even though I'm grandfathered, it still limits me in my aspirations to be a principal. It limits me in my life because if I need to move on to another district or another town, I won't be grandfathered anymore. If I want to leave the province and then come back a few years later, I'm going to lose that privilege too.

It's an interesting argument that you're making in the statement of claim, because you're saying that it's not just affecting you and your religion as a Muslim ... it also affects you as a woman. In what way does it do so?

They can say that this is a law about secularism. They can pretend that it's a law about religious symbols. But at the end of the day, we all know that [in] the teaching profession, we are mostly women.

If you go to Montreal, for example, you'd see that there are a lot of women wearing hijabs who are getting degrees as teachers. And you don't see that many Jewish people wearing kippahs as teachers. You don't see that many Sikh women or men wearing the turban. Mostly, it's Muslim women.

So we can't help but feel like we are being targeted by them.

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

The other thing you say in the statement of claim, which is interesting, you say that the law, it's supposed to be in an effort to support religious freedom. And yet you say that this is a contradiction of the very premise of the law. Can you explain that?

When you talk about religious freedom, it means that everybody is supposed to believe in whatever they want to believe. Everybody is supposed to be free to adopt the religion that they want and to express it — to live it and to express it.

However, when it comes to Muslim women, when you are denied that job because of the way you practice your religion, it means that it's unfair to you.

I think it's a little bit paradoxical to me. You pretend to protect my religious freedoms, but you are denying me the freedom of religion. 

Of course, the government argues that the law is neutral, that it's not about you, is not aimed at you. It's about keeping religion out of classrooms and is not specific about religion or gender. You contradict that.

We are doing our jobs neutrally, with neutrality. We are not proselytizing.

When I teach, I do not use my religious symbol. It is the way I decide to dress, but I do not use religion in my work. I do not preach.

What's it been like for you at school since Bill 21, since you've gone back into the classroom this year?

I'm lucky enough because I have been working at the same school for four years and I have wonderful colleagues who are very supportive to me.

But I can tell you that it's not the same for many of my friends. They are going through really hard times right now. Ever since the bill was passed, the atmosphere has changed for them. 

Can you describe in what way it's changed? What the atmosphere is like for those colleagues?

I know for a fact that [one] of my colleagues, she is working at another school and she changed schools just this year, so her colleagues do not know her.

She can hear comments. She can feel like they are looking. They do not try to integrate her in their teams. 

She is getting more and more sick, you know, and I'm afraid she's not going to stand it anymore.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has defended Bill 21 by saying it represents the will of the majority. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

And what's it been like with the students? Have they changed? Do you sense a change of attitude from the kids?

One of my colleagues, she is a very good teacher. She is very much appreciated. She's been working at the same school for 10 years.

And just at the beginning of the year ... her school receives a letter from a parent telling her that they don't want their kids to be in her class. 

She felt like she had been targeted. She didn't commit a crime. And yet she's been judged for something because ... the whole atmosphere is like toxic.

She's very good. She's very sweet and all. But she doesn't understand why it's happening to her.

You know, a large number of the people who are affected by this law are not speaking out. They're just keeping to themselves because of concerns for the treatment they're getting. So you are being outspoken. Why do you feel an obligation to do that?

I've been speaking against this law since the whole story started.

I already had comments like, "Oh, you are being grandfathered, so you could just go back home and stop talking."

But, you know what? There are all these people who are not talking for themselves. They do not have a voice. At school boards, there are a lot of teachers who are being denied positions.

I know how it feels when you have a passion and you do your best to be able to do the job of your dreams. You study hard, you sacrifice your life, you sacrifice your family and all, and you have the economic price that goes with it. And then at the end of it, you are being told that, "OK, we deny you this position because you do not want to comply with a certain dress code."

I can imagine how they feel. I don't pretend to be their spokesperson, but I feel like they need to be heard. People need to know that these people who are affected are not just, like, numbers. They're not metrics. They are people.

And these people have families too. They have husbands. They have children. They live in the community. They want to integrate the community.

We are telling them: "We do not accept you to teach our kids."

We're in the middle of a federal election campaign, and so far we've heard that none of the party leaders is taking any kind of strong stand against Bill 21. They say it's to let the courts decide. What do you want to hear from those federal parties?

I feel personally that the matter is not important to them because it is maybe a provincial issue, and you know in Quebec they have to have more voters.

I feel like they don't care about us. We are not as important.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.