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Former Chelsea teacher still fighting Bill 21

March 6th,2024 | News

Fatemeh Anvari, the former Chelsea teacher who was removed from her Grade 3 class in 2021 for wearing a hijab, says that she feels she’s still fighting the same battle after a Quebec Appeals Court recently upheld the divisive Bill 21, which bars public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. Trevor Greenway photo

It’s been over two years since Fatemeh Anvari was banned from her Chelsea classroom for wearing a hijab, but the former teacher still feels like she’s fighting the same, stigmatic battle. 

A Quebec Appeals Court on Feb. 29 upheld the province’s controversial Bill 21, which restricts Quebecers in positions of authority – teachers, police officers and politicians – from wearing religious symbols on the job. 

Anvari was a teacher at Chelsea Elementary and was removed from her Grade 3 classroom in 2021 for wearing a hijab. She was moved to an administrative role within the school, but has since left teaching. 

In a heavily anticipated, 290-page decision, a panel of judges from Quebec’s highest court determined that Bill 21 “does not affect Canada’s constitutional architecture.”

The judgement not only supports Bill 21 but also reverses a previous exemption made by Superior Court Judge Marc-André Blanchard, which allowed English schools to employ teachers wearing religious symbols, such as a head covering, while on the job.

“I hope we can see the day when we are all equal,” Anvari told the Low Down March 3, three days after Quebec upheld the law that ended her teaching career. She’s wearing a white hijab and a black and white patterned vest, her piercing green eyes lighting up her warm smile. “It really is sad that it had to take two -and-a-half-years after Bill 21 was passed for people to realize that this affects people.” Anvari became the face of Bill 21 in Quebec after this newspaper broke the news of her being removed from her class on Dec. 2, 2021. The story reignited the debate over Bill 21 across the country, with the Prime Minister’s office weighing in, telling the Low Down at the time that, “Nobody in Canada should ever lose their job because of what they wear or their religious beliefs.” 

Anvari said she received a swell of support from fellow teachers, staff at the Western Quebec School Board (WQSB), parents and students, who wrote her more than 40 cards – most of them coloured in her favourite green – that are still stacked in a special drawer at her Gatineau home, which she said she opens often. 

“I would not have felt safe to speak out had the school community not been behind me,” said Anvari, adding that she was overwhelmed by how many people – mostly parents from the entire school – took a stand to fight for “someone who looked different from them.”

“They really were the ones who came out and spoke against Bill 21,” she said. “Parents were tearing up on the radio, on TV, they had their kids with them, they made signs, they went to protests. I haven’t found the right words to do it justice. It was just so humbling and so eye-opening as to how intelligent kids are…and so much more intelligent than so many of our adults.”

When the story first hit the press, Anvari said she was concerned about her safety. Journalists were chasing after her vehicle in the Chelsea Elementary parking lot, media requests were coming in rapidly and her face was pasted all over social media. Quebec politicians with the ruling CAQ party were taking shots at her, arguing that she wore her hijab to “make a statement.”

But after seeing support for the bill drop 11 cent among Quebecers in a Leger poll released after Anvari’s story went national, she felt a sense of responsibility to speak out against the oppression of fellow Muslim women, not only on Canadian soil but those fighting the oppressive regime in Iran where she is from.  She also mentioned that while policing woman in Canada doesn’t manifest as violent, the bill represents the same opressive message. 

“I choose to dress this way, and I’ve never criticized women who wanted to not abide by the mandatory hijab law in Iran,” added Anvari. “I’ve always believed that it’s ridiculous to police women’s voices and their body, but have I understood the depth of how painful it is on a day-to-day basis to not have that sense of belonging?”

Despite the wave of support she received, Anvari said she still finds that Canada is struggling to eradicate Islamophobia – in the media, in pop culture and on the political stage. She has been clear from the beginning that she chooses to wear her hijab, but said the stigma around face and head coverings still exists with so-called “feminists” fighting for her right to remove it. 

“We don’t need liberating,” said Anvari. “We’re free. To decide what free looks like for us is antithetical to freedom.”

Pontiac MP decries notwithstanding clause

Pontiac MP Sophie Chatel told the Low Down that her Liberal government will intervene on Bill 21 when it heads to the Supreme Court, which is likely where the bill is headed. 

Chatel challenged Quebec’s pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause when the bill was being adopted in 2019 and warned that its use would prevent the bill from being struck down by lawmakers if it was deemed to go against Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is what she argues happened last week when Quebec’s high court upheld the law. 

“This is a very problematic use of the notwithstanding clause – to use it to prevent judges to determine whether or not there was a charter violation,” said Chatel. “It has to be case by case, and there has to be empathy for the person experiencing the impact of a legislation to be able to decide whether or not there is a violation of the Charter of Rights. Preventing judges to look at that is just not right.”

Chatel said she is looking forward to seeing the case at the Supreme Court, especially since Ontario Premiere Doug Ford also used the notwithstanding clause to impose a new labour contract on striking education workers in 2022. 

“Where does it end?” asked Chatel. “The Supreme Court needs to look at the issue, and that’s what I’m hoping for – that we intervene to demonstrate that this is not who we are as a country.”

The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) also decried the decision, noting that the “justices’ hands were tied by the Quebec government’s use of the notwithstanding clause.”

“Well, it demonstrates the power of the notwithstanding clause in both the Canadian and Quebec Charter rights,” said QCGN director-general Sylvia Martin-Laforge. “The ruling did not say Bill 21 is constitutional. It said that even if elements of the law are unconstitutional, the court had no power to say so because of the notwithstanding clause protecting large parts of the bill from judicial scrutiny.”

Martin-Laforge and her organization have been at odds with the CAQ’s divisive policies since it took power in 2018, pushing back against Quebec’s French-language bill, Bill 96; Bill 40, which aims to dissolve English school boards across the province; and Bill 21, which has “brought misery to many,” alluding to individuals such as Anvari. 

“Young, observant Muslim women, for example, cannot work as teachers and still honour their religious convictions,” said Martin-Laforge. “We have already seen a case of a teacher being removed from the classroom and reassigned to an administrative post because she wore a head covering for reasons of conscience. It was administrators who decided her head cover was a religious symbol.”

Gatineau MNA Robert Bussière did not return the Low Down’s calls. 

WQSB disappointed with decision

WQSB director-general George Singfield told the Low Down that the decision was both “disappointing and frustrating” for his board, especially since Anvari was a WQSB teacher when she was removed from her class. He told the Low Down that the ruling doesn’t align with the school’s values. 

“It’s about what we stand for,” Singfield told the Low Down. “When we speak about the importance of recognizing diversity and honoring the dignity of all of our stakeholders, students and staff, it makes it difficult to walk that talk when we have this restriction that’s mandated by the government.” 

Singfield said that, despite the law, WQSB continues to ensure that its diverse board, staff, teachers and students always feel welcome in their schools. After Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville barred prayer rooms in public schools in April of last year, citing the province’s policy on institutional secularism, the WQSB board initiated “quiet rooms” where students can study, mediate or pray. 

“In a number of our schools we have quiet spaces that students may use. They may go in and meditate, they may go in and pray,” said Singfield. “Do we label them prayer rooms? Not necessarily because they could be used for other things.”

For Anvari, she said she hopes that school boards like the WQSB and the English Montreal School Board, which took the government to court over Bill 21 provisions, continue to stand up for their staff and students. She questions how secular Quebec really is when provincial curriculums include ethics and religious studies.

“So, what are you saying, that they are allowed to learn these religions exist, but god forbid they be exposed to someone of that other religion? Is that the message?”

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