'We will keep on fighting': Hijabi women devastated by Appeal Court decision to uphold Bill 21

Amal Sassi was counting on Quebec's highest court to suspend the province's controversial secularism law, so she kept her head buried in her books Thursday and focused on studying for her final exams. 

When she stepped out and heard the news that the Court of Appeal had upheld Bill 21, Sassi was crushed to find out the justices had voted two to one against its suspension.

All three judges had serious criticisms of Bill 21, or the Laicity Act, acknowledging it causes "irreparable harm" to those affected, but the majority ruled the law should be allowed to stand until the constitutional challenges are heard in Quebec Superior Court. 

That came as a huge disappointment to those those advocating against Bill 21, who say it's already having serious repercussions on the daily lives of people it affects. 

"Some of us have all our future and life at stake for this," said Sassi, 32, who is in her second year of studies to become an elementary school teacher. She moved to Quebec from Tunisia in 2017 to do just that. 

"I was really hoping that I could go back to doing my job," said Sassi, who is Muslim and wears a headscarf. 

She was hired in April as a substitute teacher by Montreal's second-largest French-language school board, the Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys.

However, Bill 21 bars public school teachers, as well as police officers and government lawyers and some other civil servants, from wearing religious symbols — such as hijabs or turbans — while at work.

Quebec's Coalition Avenir Québec government invoked closure to push the law through this summer, including the notwithstanding clause to override sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Teachers hired before March 29, 2019, are exempt from the law, unless they change jobs or are promoted.

Sassi missed her chance by a month.

'I got accepted for a job, and then I was told I could not do it'

"People who started to work one month before me have the right to wear the veil during work," she said.

"I got accepted for a job, and then I was told I could not do it."

Sassi has been avoiding taking substitute teaching assignments because of how uncomfortable she is not wearing her hijab. 

She says her case is antithetical to one of the provincial government's main justifications for passing the law: to promote equality between men and women. She now finds herself financially dependent on her husband.

Sassi says she made the decision on her own to wear the hijab, as a teenager.

"People say it's men who make women wear it," Sassi said. "It was against my father's decision at the time.… He did not speak to me for a month because of it."

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Nour Farhat is a lawyer helping a major Quebec teachers union, the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement, in its court challenge against Bill 21, the latest of four challenges to be filed. 

Farhat is also personally affected by the law. She studied law in the hope of becoming a Crown prosecutor but can't work as one unless she removes her head covering. 

"To be honest, I'm a little bit disappointed. However, I am happy that the Court of Appeal stayed committed to its independence [in the decision]," Farhat said. 

"I'm talking for my clients and for all the people who are affected by this law — we will keep on fighting."

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, a director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which filed the request for the injunction alongside the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said the decision is devastating. 

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"It changes none of the hardships that were caused to people on June 16th of this year, and they're left in a state of worry and concern and insecurity," she said. 

'The battle is not over'

Like Sassi, Hanadi Saad, the founder of Justice Femme, an organization that helps Muslim women fight harassment and discrimination, said she was expecting the judges to suspend the law because of the harm it's already causing Muslim women.

"Actually, I don't know if I still believe in our legal system," Saad said. No one knows how much time it could take for the court challenges of the Laicity Act to wend their way through the justice system — and that means too many more teachers' lives and careers will be left on hold, she said. 

She fears that as long as the law is upheld, there will be more hate crimes against Muslims. 

"I see what's going on, and it will be worse, but the battle is not over."

Sassi, the education student, says she was comforted by all three judges' acknowledgement that the law causes harm to those affected.

But the Appeal Court's decision to let the law stand has renewed her conviction to leave the province.

"I've tried other things. I even tried studying biology for a year. I worked at a hospital. But being with kids is what I do best in my life. And this is why I'm not going to stop."