Day 6

Quebec's religious symbols ban is pushing some women to rethink their future in the province

Four court challenges against Quebec's controversial religious symbols ban, Bill 21, are expected to conclude later this month. But whatever the courts decide, the law has already driven many young women in the province to rethink their careers or start a new life elsewhere.

'Maybe I'd like to become a judge one day or a prosecutor, and Bill 21 would limit my choices,' says student

Four court challenges against Quebec's controversial religious symbols ban, Bill 21, are expected to conclude later this month. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

As she nears the end of her university career, Seeba Chaachouh is grappling with the decision to leave her home province in order to start her law career.

The 25-year-old Muslim woman was born and raised in Montreal and had hoped to begin her career in the province. But with a law banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols, she worries her opportunities will be stifled.

"I am a hijabi — I wear the hijab — and I study law," she told Day 6. "Maybe one day I would like to pursue law in the public sector. Maybe I'd like to become a judge one day or a prosecutor, and Bill 21 would limit my choices."

The Quebec government passed the Laicity Act, commonly called Bill 21, in June 2019 which banned certain public employees, including public school teachers and government lawyers, from wearing religious symbols in the workplace.

The law, which was passed with a notwithstanding clause, is now being challenged in four different court cases. It's expected that those cases will wrap by the end of December, with a decision next year.

Chaachouh was optimistic that eventually the law would be overturned and she could work while living near her family. But in the year-and-a-half since the law took effect — and the COVID-19 pandemic shifted focus — Chaachouh says she's "tired of being here."

Seeba Chaachouh is completing her law degree at McGill University in Montreal. She says she plans to take the bar exam in another province. (Submitted by Seeba Chaachouh)

"I'm not going to wait until I see where this is going. I will take the bar, and not in Quebec," she said. 

"That doesn't mean I can't in the future come back, pass the bar here and live here. But it would be hard…. If I start building my career somewhere else, it will really be hard to disrupt that and come back here and build it all over again."

Part of identity

Chaachouh isn't alone in her decision to leave the province to begin work. Amrit Kaur, 29, packed her bags for British Columbia shortly after Bill 21 became law.

"I completed my Bachelors of Education at the University of Ottawa the same day that Bill 21 was formalized into a law," said Kaur. 

"Because I do wear a turban at all times as I am an observant Sikh, I was forced to relocate and move to British Columbia, where I'm a high school teacher."

Kaur is an intervenor, represented by the World Sikh Organization of Canada, in one of the cases challenging Bill 21. Under the bill, school teachers who wore articles of faith in the classroom before it became law can continue to do so, but would be required to remove them if they change roles or schools.

Amrit Kaur moved to British Columbia in 2019 to pursue a teaching career. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"I moved to Quebec when I was about five years old from England. I went to preschool, elementary school, high school, CEGEP [publicly funded post-secondary education] and university…. in those years I learned French. I cultivated a Québecois identity," she told Day 6.

"But that doesn't matter because of the way I look."

Kaur says that removing her articles of faith would make her someone different.

Fighting for rights

Kaur admits that leaving her family behind in Montreal and moving to the West Coast has been difficult.

"There's only so much of a connection you can build over a telephone. I don't FaceTime with my family because it's hard to see them," she said.

"If I see them, then it just reminds me of the fact that I can't turn my body or walk into a room and see them there or hug them or just sit down with them."

'Shameful' that Bill 21 exists, says CEO of Muslim-Canadian council

12 months ago
It's 'shameful' Bill 21 exists and that a Sikh teacher, Amrit Kaur, had to leave the province due to the law, says National Council of Canadian Muslims CEO Mustafa Farooq.   1:04

For Chaachouh, whose family have asked her to stay in the province, leaving is no easy decision.

"I'm between wanting to listen to them and also exhausted and wanting to just relax at last and not have to deal with this anymore," she said.

Throughout her undergraduate degree, Chaachouh had an interest in the human rights of others. Now, as the fight the repeal Bill 21 continues, it's her own rights that are at stake.

"Whether I'm hijabi or not, I should be able to seek any opportunity that I want, especially if I am qualified for it."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Annie Bender.