Quebec's largest school board will not apply religious symbols law — at least for now

The Commission Scolaire de Montréal voted unanimously Wednesday evening to delay the application of Quebec's religious symbols law until a proper consultation process with its internal groups can be carried out.

The consultations could last until the fall of 2020, the CSDM said in a news release Wednesday evening.

For elementary school teacher Bouchera Chelbi, the night was positive.

"We saw an inability to apply the law at the CSDM," she said. 

Chelbi has been wearing a hijab since age 17 — when she decided, herself, as a matter of faith — in her native Algeria. She said she can't imagine taking it off now.

She would keep her job because of a grandfather clause in the new law, but she doesn't like that it would create a two-tiered system within the school board.

"With all the problems we have with recruiting and keeping teachers, I think we can't limit the new people that we can have and want to keep," she said.

According to Catherine Harel-Bourdon, president of the CSDM, the delay in applying the new law is so that the school board can consult with its stakeholders: parents, teachers, unions and other groups.

"We want to have a democratic strategy," Harel-Bourdon said.

"The decision made by the commissioners gives us a year to understand how to change the rules so that they are clear for everyone," she said.

The CSDM is the province's largest public school board with 17,000 employees and 114,000 students.

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Marc-André Gosselin, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, told CBC that there is no question on if the law can be suspended — it has been applicable as soon as it came into effect.

Chelbi wonders how the government proposes to enforce it, however.

"Will police officers go into a school and see a woman wearing a hijab and give her a ticket? Unless they describe all their credentials to be grandfathered?" Chelbi said.

The new secularism law, once known as Bill 21, makes it illegal for public school teachers to wear religious symbols at work.

The CAQ made last-minute changes to Bill 21, giving the government power to ensure institutions, such as school boards, comply with the law and imposing sanctions if they do not.

School teachers already on the job will be exempt from the religious symbols ban under a grandfather clause. But they will lose the exemption if they move to another school or take up another position, such as accepting a promotion to the principal's office.