A francophone school board in Montreal’s east end has confirmed that it denied employment to two aspiring teachers who wear religious symbols. This comes less than two weeks after the majority of school boards on the island publicly agreed to apply Quebec’s religious neutrality law after initially speaking out against Bill 21.
“Both people were wearing visible religious symbols, we informed them of the law and they refused to remove their religious symbols, so we did not hire them,” said the president of the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l’île (CSPI), Miville Boudreault.
“We are simply respecting the law.”
Under the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s law, civil servants in positions of authority — including teachers, judges and police officers — are not allowed to wear religious symbols at work.
In another incident, another francophone school board issued a written warning to a newly hired teacher two weeks ago, demanding she remove her hijab by Sept. 10 if she wants to be eligible for a contract at the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM).
The union says it has been told the warning is an administrative measure, meaning it can’t fight it through arbitration and if the new employee doesn’t comply, she will be out of a job.
“Basically If she calls the school board by tomorrow (September 10) and accepts to remove her hijab then she will be hired,” said Catherine Beauvais-St-Pierre, president of the Montreal Teachers Alliance.
“We’re not happy about it but we understand the school board’s hands are tied.”
The CSDM confirmed a teacher received a written warning but refused to comment any further.
According to the Montreal Teachers Alliance, which represents teachers at the CSDM, this is the only new teacher that they are aware of who has been asked to remove their religious garb under Bill 21. However, its president insists many teachers who have the right to wear religious symbols under the law’s grandfather clause have been calling the union to complain about the tense work climate.
“We know that the school boards are stuck with this hot potato (Bill 21),” said Beauvais-St-Pierre, adding the law has opened the door to racism, even if that wasn’t the government’s intention.
“We hope that school principals — even if they have to apply the law — can make sure that those still wearing religious symbols can work in a healthy and serene environment.”
A lawyer for the CSPI claims that despite turning down two candidates, no teacher has defied the application of Quebec’s secularism law.
“We verified the hiring dates of certain candidates who are currently wearing religious symbols,” said Valérie Biron in a statement. “If they were hired for the first time after March 27, we reminded them of the legal constraints and our duty to apply the law.”
A recent teaching graduate who decided to leave the province last month to work in British Columbia due to Bill 21 says she’s appalled by the backlash being faced by some teachers. Amrit Kaur wears a visible religious symbol and compares asking someone to remove their religious symbol to asking someone to show up at work “naked.”
“If you ask me to take off my turban, you’re asking me to come to work completely uncomfortable, it’s part of my body,” said Kaur who is also the vice-president of the Quebec chapter of the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
“I would feel exposed and that’s humiliating.”