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People rally against Quebec’s Bill 21 after a teacher was removed from her position because she wears a hijab, in Chelsea, Que., on Dec. 14, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

I first began writing about efforts to ban religious symbols from Quebec public schools almost 27 years ago as a young reporter at Montreal’s Le Devoir. The issue had made its way onto the public agenda in 1994 after a French-language high school suspended a student for wearing a hijab to class. The school’s dress code forbade students from sporting any garment that “allowed them to group themselves according to ideological affinity.”

A handful of other schools soon followed and, before long, clamouring began for a full-scale débat de société concerning the place of religion in public schools. Quebec was already in the process of reorganizing its education system and moving to convert its Catholic and Protestant school boards into French- and English-language ones, with the goal of removing the pre-Quiet Revolution vestiges of religion from its elementary and high schools. To some proponents of deconfessionalization, the appearance of hijabs in Montreal classrooms ran counter to this effort.

In early 1995, what was then Quebec’s largest teacher’s union, the Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec, announced its formal opposition to the hijab in public schools and called on the government to intervene. “This is not something we are going to decide school by school, class by class, teacher by teacher,” then CEQ president Lorraine Pagé insisted. “The government must launch a debate on this question and establish a clear policy that is recognized by everyone.”

In the more than quarter-century that has ensued, debate there has been. No one can accuse Quebeckers of having taken this issue lightly. They have gone to excruciating lengths to define the concept of secularism and what it means for them in a series of exercises in collective soul searching, the likes of which English Canada is wholly unfamiliar with. While many people in the rest of Canada see Quebec’s Bill 21 through the single lens of religious freedom, making it a slam-dunk case of religious intolerance, it really is so much more complicated than that.

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The first proponents of a ban on religious symbols in Quebec were progressive feminists. They had been influenced by developments in France, where the Islamic head scarf had been denounced by politicians on the left as a threat to gender equality. The experience of women from former French colonies in North Africa who had been forced to wear the hijab weighed heavily in France’s decision to ban the veil in its public schools.

Since then, the tables have been turned. For progressive politicians in Quebec and France alike, religious-symbols bans smack of systemic racism, since they stigmatize already marginalized minorities. Rather than being a symbol of the oppression of women, the hijab is now held up in the West as a powerful marker of one’s identity, or even a political statement.

This seems to be the case for Fatemeh Anvari, the Quebec teacher removed from her classroom job last week for violating Bill 21′s religious-symbols ban by wearing a hijab, setting off a firecracker of indignation in English Canada. “It’s so important for me to continue to wear it because I know that certain ideologies want me not to wear it. It’s my resistance and my resilience, and I stand by it,” Ms. Anvari, who has been moved to a non-classroom job with the same school board, told the Ottawa Citizen. “I am in no way saying that it’s a symbol of Islam for me.”

Quebec Premier François Legault, whose Coalition Avenir Québec cunningly transformed what started out as a feminist cause into a nationalist one, is wrong to assert that Bill 21′s popularity among francophone Quebeckers alone proves its legitimacy. But he is correct in noting that the Western Quebec School Board erred in recently hiring Ms. Anvari in the first place. Bill 21 includes a grandfather clause allowing Quebec teachers who wore the hijab before its adoption to continue to do so, so long as they remain in their existing positions. The religious-symbols ban only applies to new hires.

Bill 21 is currently before the Quebec Court of Appeal, where Quebec’s ability to invoke the Canadian Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to shield the law from a judicial review is being contested. The case is likely to wind up before the Supreme Court. But for now it is the law, and Quebec’s political class is unanimous in insisting that the law must respected.

If Ms. Anvari’s case proves anything, however, it is that Bill 21 is unnecessary. She remains the only teacher since its mid-2019 adoption to be reassigned to a non-classroom job because she sports a religious symbol, as defined in the law. While there have been reports of Muslim women claiming to have abandoned their aspirations of becoming teachers because of Bill 21, they are too few to justify claims that, without the law, Quebec’s public schools risk being overrun by hijabs.

Eventually, most Quebeckers may come to realize that themselves. After all, it’s not like they’ve finished debating the issue.

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