Aden Seaton’s two children attend Chelsea Elementary School, in Quebec. She works at The Low Down to Hull & Back News, the local newspaper serving the Gatineau Hills.
My son had been begging me to visit his Grade 3 class, and so, thanks to his teacher’s enthusiastic arranging of the logistics, I popped in on Dec. 3 to do a short presentation about Hanukkah. It’s something that Chelsea Elementary School welcomes every year during the Festival of Lights. I was disappointed when, the day before, his teacher sent me an e-mail saying that she was going to have to miss our time together – but nevertheless, the next day, my son and I recounted the Hanukkah story to his classmates.
According to legend, in the 2nd century BCE, Jewish practices were forbidden in Jerusalem by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. Most people complied, fearfully hiding their religious activities. But a small group known as the Maccabees resisted their oppressors and refused to renounce their religion. In 168 BCE, the king’s army descended, massacring thousands of Jews, destroying the Temple, and desecrating it by sacrificing pigs and erecting an altar to the Greek god Zeus. But the Maccabees persisted for two years before pushing back Antiochus’s troops, regaining access to the Temple and rekindling the eternal flame of the menorah with one day’s worth of oil, which instead miraculously burned for eight days. And so, voilà: to this day, we celebrate those eight days of Hanukkah.
When I shared that ancient story, I had no idea that on that same day, my son’s teacher, Fatemeh Anvari, had been reassigned to duties outside of the classroom because she wears a hijab. According to the Quebec government, that religious symbol rendered her ineligible for the teaching role she’d already held, even though Ms. Anvari says that she sees the hijab more as a part of her identity and how she chooses to represent herself. As a result, a smart, kind, trained teacher was prevented from doing her job because of her symbolic clothing. And now, Ms. Anvari has been reassigned in the school to working on a literacy project centred around diversity – a bitter irony.
I was born in Quebec and have happily spent most of my life in this province. I myself am deeply committed to secularism, known in this province as laïcité, and I find that it has much to offer. I remember how, as a Jewish kid living in rural Ontario in the 1980s, religion in public schools was just a regular part of life. In Grade 5, I was given a Gideon Bible during class time – part of a routine visit the Gideons would make to all students of that age back in those days – and each morning in class, I recited the Lord’s Prayer. While I appreciate the beauty of those words to this day, prayers should never have been a part of my school’s opening exercises, a debate that was broadly settled across most of Canada after the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in 1988 that school prayer violated the Canadian Charter.
But there is a chasm between compelling a child to recite or even sit through a religious devotional prayer during class time, and allowing individuals the freedom to dress according to their wishes and beliefs. Ms. Anvari taught my son English Language Arts, not Islamic doctrine; her hijab never interfered with the education she was providing, and it had no effect whatsoever on the curriculum she was teaching to the children in her class. In short, her teaching was secular, as it rightly should be in a public school. The problem, the provincial government would have us believe, was that she was insufficiently secular, at least in her appearance.
Some supporters of Bill 21 claim that allowing for the appearance of any religious symbol amounts to proselytization. This caricature portrays religious people as too untrustworthy to take part in public life. It was precisely this kind of intolerance that led many to doubt John F. Kennedy’s ability to serve as the first Catholic president of the United States in the 1960s – concerns that are unimaginable today.
And as many have pointed out, crosses remain on many public buildings throughout the province. Personally, I don’t want them to be removed: They’re part of Quebec’s evolution, and a remnant from a previous era that reminds us of the important cultural change that this province has undergone. These symbols may still resonate with some people, but they no longer hold their former power.
Perhaps we could all benefit from being a bit more laissez-faire on issues of personal expression, even when there’s a hint of religion. What harm is caused by a hijab when freely worn? There was certainly no harm inflicted on the children in this case – that is, right up until they lost their teacher. On the other hand, there is enormous harm done to individuals who lose the opportunity to be hired, individuals who find themselves suddenly ineligible for advancement, and entire groups of people who are told explicitly that they simply need not apply for certain jobs when they are perfectly able to perform those roles. How does excluding people who wish to participate in and contribute to their communities serve the interests of Quebec society?
Part of the beauty and freedom of secularism is supposed to be that we can practice a religion – or not – without penalty. But I can see how this noble idea can be distorted. Coercion, after all, does not foster anything positive, much less a concept as nuanced as secularism. Bill 21 has cleaved open old conflicts, creating new ones, and leading to layers of polarization within Quebec and throughout the rest of the country. Its interpretation of secularist principles will not lead us to a good place.
The current situation in Chelsea has put many people in untenable ethical positions, caught between carrying out their official duties and their own sense of justice. My children’s school and the school board are officially against Bill 21, yet they must comply with it. Could this be a moment for conscientious refusal? Doing so wouldn’t just be following a moral gut feeling: it would be grounded in Canada’s Constitution, Quebec’s own Charter, as well as the simple human understanding that all people should be free to practise their religion.
Secularism is foundational to Quebec society, and a generous reading of Bill 21 could assert that the legislation is trying to foster neutrality. And it has been disheartening to see Quebeckers who support Bill 21 all be flatly dismissed as bigoted, when the complex reality is that there are a range of reasons why Quebeckers support this legislation. But with the bill’s implementation, we’ve seen how quickly any laudable goals have crumbled.
The Maccabees overcame their oppression and, as the Jewish diaspora’s dreidels remind us, a great miracle happened there. But I don’t think that’s necessarily what we need here in Quebec. We just need to take a deep breath and decide to live together, rather than apart.
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