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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during Question Period in Ottawa on Dec. 8.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Premier Francois Legault says a school board in western Quebec should not have hired a teacher who wore a hijab.

Legault told reporters today in Quebec City the province’s secularism law, known as Bill 21, has been in place since June 2019 and the Western Quebec School Board should have respected it when hiring.

It emerged this week that a Grade 3 teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, just north of Gatineau, Que., had recently been reassigned to duties outside the classroom because she wore a hijab.

In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not “closed the door” on legal action against the Quebec law, his office said on Friday.

He has been inundated with phone calls and emails since, he said – the vast majority opposing the move. In a hand-drawn card posted online by human rights advocate Amira Elghawaby, a Grade 3 student decried the transfer as “not fair.”

The mostly French-speaking province of Quebec enacted the law in 2019 ostensibly to maintain “laicite” – secularism – in its public service.

The bill, partially upheld by a Quebec court this spring, has been slammed for targeting Muslims, Sikhs and Jews. Federal party leaders demanded an apology during a September federal election debate after the moderator called it discriminatory.

“Nobody in Canada should ever lose their job because of what they wear or their religious beliefs,” Trudeau’s office said in an email. “We haven’t closed the door on making representation in court in the future,” it added.

Inclusion and Diversity Minister Ahmed Hussen told reporters on Thursday it was “premature” to ask the federal government if it plans to oppose the two-year-old law.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), the National Council of Canadian Muslims and other groups filed documents supporting their argument before an appeals court, likely next year.

They face an uphill battle because Quebec has invoked a clause allowing governments to enact legislation that violates some parts of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But support from the federal government might make a difference, said University of Waterloo politics professor Emmett Macfarlane.

“There is some evidence that government interventions in constitutional cases can have some weight.”

CCLA equality program director Noa Mendelsohn Aviv told Reuters the issue is not Quebec or Canada, but universal human rights.

“Ultimately it is human beings that are being pushed out of their jobs, human beings that are suffering and fundamental rights that are being violated.”

With a file from The Canadian Press

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