'It inhibits me': Teachers open court challenge to Quebec's secularism law, Bill 21

·3 min read

MONTREAL — Three teachers opened the court challenge to Quebec's secularism law Monday, testifying that the legislation forces them to choose between their deeply held religious beliefs and their vocations. 

Ichrak Nourel Hak was a student in June 2019 when Quebec adopted Bill 21, the law banning public sector workers in positions of authority -- including teachers, police officers and judges -- from wearing religious symbols on the job.

She told the court the law makes her feel excluded from society. Nourel Hak said she started wearing the hijab at the age of 21 after reflecting on her religion. Her hijab is a part of who she is, she said, adding that it is unimaginable for her to remove it during teaching hours.

Monday's legal proceedings combined four separate lawsuits challenging Bill 21 into one trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks before Superior Court Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard. The judge said the trial was both "ordinary and extraordinary" because it touches on the values of Quebec society and the rights of various groups -- which he said sometimes conflict.

Nourel Hak told the court numerous times it was her choice to wear the Islamic head scarf and no one forced her to do it. When asked what her father thought when she made her decision, the teacher told the court, "he didn't feel strongly one way or another."

She testified that she received her teaching degree in September and was hired by a private school that isn't subject to Bill 21. She said wearing the hijab is also a way for her to fight stereotypes against Muslim women. "I want to show that there are women who are fulfilled, who want to give back to society," she told the court.

Amrit Kaur is a practising Sikh who teaches at a private high school in British Columbia. She told the court her plan was to teach in Montreal but Bill 21 forced her to leave the province. She said because she wears religious symbols, her only option in Quebec was to work in the private system. 

But, she said, there are only a handful of private schools in Montreal, and given her lack of experience, it was difficult to find full-time work. She said removing her "symbols of faith" would be a violation of the oath she took toward her religion. "I wouldn't be me anymore," she said.

Messaouda Dridj has been teaching elementary school math since 2014 -- wearing a hijab. Under Bill 21, she is not forced to remove it because the law was tabled after she had begun teaching. 

Dridj, however, testified that she is worried for her future because the law stipulates she can't keep her hijab if she changes careers within the education system. She couldn't become a guidance councillor, for instance, and keep her acquired right to wear the hijab.

"It inhibits me," she said of Bill 21.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has called Bill 21 "moderate" and "balanced" and said it is supported by the majority of Quebecers. He has said the law doesn't prevent people from practising their religion and that it is a way for the Quebec nation to enshrine its deeply held secularist values.

Bill 21 makes pre-emptive use of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms notwithstanding clause, which shields legislation from court challenges over violations of fundamental rights. 

In a bid to get around the notwithstanding clause, the plaintiffs are invoking the sexual equality guarantees in Section 28 of the charter, which they maintain are not covered by the notwithstanding clause.

Earlier on Monday, a few dozen people protested outside the Montreal courthouse against Bill 21. Many protesters said they were part of the McGill Radical Law Students’ Association.

Fanny Caire, a spokesperson for the group, said Bill 21 "will prevent people from holding certain jobs based on the way they dress, and it will disproportionately discriminate against Muslim women and people of colour."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2020.

Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press