Opinion: Bill 21 failed Fatemeh Anvari. But he also fails his students like my son, and Quebec laymen like me

Aden Seaton’s two children attend Chelsea Elementary School in Quebec. She works at News from Low Down to Hull & Back, the local newspaper serving the Gatineau Hills.

My son begged me to visit his grade 3 class and, thanks to his teacher’s enthusiastic organization of logistics, I came on December 3 to give a short presentation on Chanukah. It’s something that Chelsea Primary School hosts every year during the Festival of Lights. I was disappointed when her teacher emailed me the day before saying she was going to have to miss our time together – but nonetheless the next day my son and I told the Hanukkah story to her. classmates.

According to legend, in the 2nd century BC, Jewish practices were banned in Jerusalem by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. Most of the people obeyed, fearfully hiding their religious activities. But a small group known as the Maccabees resisted their oppressors and refused to renounce their religion. In 168 BCE, the king’s army descended, slaughtering thousands of Jews, destroying the Temple and desecrating it by sacrificing pigs and erecting an altar to the Greek god Zeus. But the Maccabees persisted for two years before pushing back Antiochus’ troops, regaining access to the Temple, and rekindling the eternal flame of the menorah with the equivalent of a day’s worth of oil, which miraculously burned for eight days. And so, here it is: on this day we celebrate these eight days of Chanukah.

When I shared this ancient story, I had no idea that on the same day my son’s teacher, Fatemeh Anvari, was reassigned to duties outside the classroom because she was wearing a hijab. . According to the Quebec government, this religious symbol made her ineligible for the teaching post she already held, even though Ms. Anvari says she views the hijab more as part of her identity and the way she chooses to be. represent. As a result, an intelligent, kind and trained teacher was prevented from doing her job because of her symbolic clothing. And now Ms Anvari has been reassigned to school to work on a diversity-centered literacy project – a bitter irony.

I was born in Quebec and have happily spent most of my life in this province. I myself am deeply attached to secularism, known in this province as secularism, and I find it has a lot to offer. I remember how, as a Jewish child living in rural Ontario in the 1980s, religion in public schools was just part of life. In grade 5, I was given a Gideon Bible during school hours – as part of a routine visit the Gideons made to all students of that age at the time – and every morning in class, I was reciting the Lord’s Prayer. While I appreciate the beauty of those words to this day, prayers should never have been part of my school’s opening exercises, a debate that was largely settled across much of Canada after the Court of Justice The Ontario appeal ruled in 1988 that praying at school violated Canadian Charter law.

But there is a gulf between forcing a child to recite or even sit during a religious devotional prayer during school hours, and allowing individuals the freedom to dress according to their wishes and beliefs. Mrs. Anvari taught my son English, not Islamic doctrine; her hijab never interfered with the education she was providing, and it had no effect on the curriculum she was teaching the children in her class. In short, she education was secular, as he should be in a public school. The problem, the provincial government would have us believe, is that she was insufficiently secular, at least in appearance.

Some supporters of Bill 21 claim that allowing any religious symbol to appear is tantamount to proselytizing. This cartoon portrays religious people as too untrustworthy to participate in public life. It is precisely this kind of intolerance that led many to doubt John F. Kennedy’s ability to be the first Catholic President of the United States in the 1960s – concerns unimaginable today.

And as many have pointed out, crosses remain on many public buildings across the province. Personally, I do not want them removed: they are part of the evolution of Quebec, and a vestige of an earlier era that recalls the significant cultural change that this province has experienced. These symbols may still resonate with some people, but they no longer hold their old power.

Maybe we could all benefit from being a little more let it go on matters of personal expression, even when there is a hint of religion. What harm is caused by a hijab when worn loosely? There was certainly no harm inflicted on the children in this case, that is, until they lost their teacher. On the other hand, individuals who lose the opportunity to be hired, individuals who suddenly find themselves ineligible for advancement, and entire groups of people who are explicitly told that they just don’t have need to apply for certain jobs when they are fully capable of filling those roles. How does the exclusion of people who wish to participate and contribute to their community serve the interests of Quebec society?

Part of the beauty and freedom of secularism is that we can practice religion – or not – without penalty. But I can see how this noble idea can be twisted. Coercion, after all, does not promote anything positive, much less a concept as nuanced as secularism. Bill 21 opened up old conflicts, created new ones and led to layers of polarization in Quebec and the rest of the country. His interpretation of secular principles will not get us to the right place.

The current situation in Chelsea has placed many people in untenable ethical positions, caught between the performance of their official duties and their own sense of justice. My children’s school and school board are officially against Bill 21, but they must comply. Could this be the moment of conscientious refusal? To do so would not be simply following a moral instinct: it would be anchored in the Constitution of Canada, the own Charter of Quebec, as well as the simple human understanding that everyone should be free to practice their religion.

Secularism is a foundation of Quebec society, and a generous reading of Bill 21 could affirm that the legislation seeks to promote neutrality. And it has been disheartening to see Quebeckers who support Bill 21 categorically dismissed as fanatics, when the complex reality is that there are a range of reasons why Quebeckers support this law. But with the implementation of the bill, we saw how quickly all the laudable goals fell apart.

The Maccabees overcame their oppression and, as the dreidels of the Jewish Diaspora remind us, a great miracle happened there. But I don’t think that’s necessarily what we need here in Quebec. We just need to take a deep breath and decide to live together rather than apart.

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