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Canada Quebec hurtling toward religious symbols ban, which critics say would not only be discriminatory, but a nightmare to enforce

People gesture as they hold up signs during a demonstration in Montreal, April 7, 2019, in opposition to the Quebec government's newly tabled Bill 21.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Bouchera Chelbi, a schoolteacher who wears a Muslim headscarf, sat in the ornate salon rouge of the National Assembly and spilled her heart out to the legislators before her. Quebec’s plan to restrict teachers’ right to wear religious symbols, she said, was going to hurt.

“As a woman, I don’t accept that you dictate to me how I can dress,” she told the MNAs.

Ms. Chelbi’s comments were both pointed and remarkable: After six days of committee hearings into Quebec’s disputed legislation on religious symbols, she was the first and only teacher in a headscarf to address politicians about it.

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The Coalition Avenir Québec government heard 36 speakers at its hearings on Bill 21, which would forbid police officers, prosecutors, schoolteachers and other public servants from wearing religious items on the job. But it largely left out the people who would be the law’s direct targets, such as Ms. Chelbi.

Ms. Chelbi would retain the right to keep her job while wearing her hijab. But new hires would not have the same right. And if Ms. Chelbi changed positions or moved to another school, she would have to remove the head covering to keep working.

“Why not just put an electronic bracelet on me?” she asked.

Ms. Chelbi’s views seem unlikely to make a difference. The government says it wants to adopt the legislation by next month and is giving no indication it plans to amend the draft bill, which would place some public-sector jobs off limits to people who wear the Muslim hijab, Sikh turban or Jewish kippa.

The province appears to be hurtling toward adopting a law that critics say would be not only discriminatory, but a nightmare to enforce.

For starters, the legislation does not define what constitutes a religious symbol. A headscarf worn by a Muslim schoolteacher would be forbidden. A headscarf worn by an atheist as a fashion choice would presumably be all right.

“Where is the line between a religious sign and a fashion accessory?” said Catherine Harel Bourdon, president of the Commission scolaire de Montréal, Quebec’s largest school board, in an open letter this week. “Who will be in charge of determining if this line has been crossed? That’s the type of situation we risk finding ourselves in.”

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There are other grey zones. For example, the Star of David is commonly associated with Judaism. But the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said the six-pointed star isn’t really a religious symbol – it’s a national emblem of the Jewish people, similar to what the fleur de lys is for Quebeckers, the group said in its committee brief. Would a Crown prosecutor wearing the symbol as a pendant around her neck be ordered to remove it?

Similarly, the Hamsa, known as the hand of Fatima or hand of Myriam, is worn by both Arabs and Jews; for some, it’s a religious symbol, for others, a cultural artifact or just a good luck charm, CIJA said. Acceptable or not? How will administrators decide?

“Numerous symbols liable to be designated as religious by administrators charged with applying the law in their institutions are multifaith and in no way religious,” the group said. It predicted workplace disputes and court challenges. “Identifying religious signs is eminently subjective and arbitrary, and applying the ban on wearing religious signs will be too.”

Other have pointed out that a devout Muslim man sporting a beard could be a teacher under the new law while the man’s wife, if she wears a hijab, could not. The bill’s sponsor, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, has said that hair is not covered by the ban because “it's part of the body.”

Throughout the hearings, Mr. Jolin-Barrette did not waver from his original position on the bill: He insists it is “moderate” and allows Quebec to chart its own course on separating state institutions from religion. He insisted Quebeckers had reached a “consensus” on the matter.

In fact, the hearings revealed the very opposite.

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Views were deeply divided. Supporters spoke ardently about enshrining the secularism of the state. Opponents were equally vociferous. In written commentary, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante came to the defence of “the diversity that is both the core and heartbeat of Montréal.” The Confédération des syndicats nationaux labour union reversed its six-year-old position on religious symbols and came out against the law; president Jacques Létourneau attributed the switch to a new, younger generation of union activists.

With the legislative path closing, the fight against Bill 21 is turning toward the courts. The government is invoking the notwithstanding clause to shield Bill 21 from Charter challenges, but lawyers are already exploring avenues for a legal fight.

Quebec's English school boards say they see a pathway to protect their schools from the law’s application; the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and National Council of Canadian Muslims are weighing legal steps as well. “If the law is passed as is, my clients intend to file a challenge,” said Catherine McKenzie, a Montreal lawyer representing the two groups. “That people are going to be frozen in careers or fired or not able to start careers because they choose to wear certain articles of clothing is offensive and wrong.”

Meanwhile, as politicians discussed the law in the decorum of the National Assembly, the heat of the debate was being felt on the streets. A woman’s group, Justice Femme, said it is seeing a spike in calls from Muslims who wear the hijab since Bill 21 was tabled in late March. They reported cases of aggression and violence, including attempts to rip a woman’s headscarf off her head.

Jan Doering, a McGill University sociologist, says Quebec’s more than decade-long discussions over religious minorities has taken a toll on the Muslim community. He interviewed 27 Muslim Montrealers of varying ages and backgrounds last year as part of a research project. Virtually all respondents were “deeply affected” by the debates and reported “more encounters with discrimination and negative treatment,” Prof. Doering said.

“They were disoriented about what it means for them to live in Quebec,” Prof. Doering said. “They felt quite worried about their place in society and questioned whether they could stay in Quebec or move.”

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Those sentiments were summed up by Ms. Chelbi, who spoke to the hearings as part of a group called Coalition Inclusion Québec. Ms. Chelbi, who was born in Algeria and teaches English to elementary-school pupils in Montreal, told MNAs that veteran Muslim teachers felt depressed and “ostracized” by Bill 21.

“[Their headscarves] were never a major problem, either for students or parents,” she said. They regarded themselves as assets for their province, she said.

Now, she said, that would change. “All of a sudden, we’re going to pass a law that says, ‘The fact you’re teaching, you’re a big problem for Quebec’.”

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