Following the removal of a teacher from her job for wearing a hijab, John Clarke dissects the overt Islamophobia of Quebec's Bill 21 and argues that it must be defeated
In early December, Fatemeh Anvari, was forced out of her job as a teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, in Quebec and ‘reassigned’ to a non-teaching position. This move took place because she chooses to wear a hijab and the province’s infamous Bill 21 prohibits those who wear a ‘religious symbol’ from occupying a ‘position of authority’ in any public service job. Nominally, the law doesn’t specifically target Muslim women but the intended purpose is abundantly clear.
Leading politicians fell over one another to express their support for this Islamophobic attack. “We’re proud to say we live in a secular society,” declared Christopher Skeete of the governing party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). He also tweeted, quite preposterously, that ‘No one ‘removed’ a teacher for wearing a headscarf. A person wearing a religious symbol (2 yrs after a secularism bill was passed) was asked to remove a religious symbol and refused to do so.’ ‘The reason this teacher doesn't have a job is because she didn't respect the law,’ added Pascal Bérubé, the Parti Québécois’s critic on secularism.
A statement issued in 2019 by the Table de Concertation Contre le Racism Systématique (TCRS) sets out a clear and compelling case against this racist legislation. It shows how the claim to advance ‘secularism’ is false and demonstrates how, far from ensuring ‘the State acts in a neutral manner towards all, not favouring or disadvantaging them according to their beliefs,’ Bill 21 ‘institutionalizes discrimination against people who are in the vast majority racialized and, in addition, often women.’
The statement goes on to condemn the measure for ‘denying many people access to employment or preventing them from thriving in their workplace, thus reinforcing the economic and social precariousness that religious minorities already experience.’ Very correctly, it suggests that the bill also contributes to ‘an increase in intolerance towards religious minorities in Quebec and in several other countries around the world,’ with Muslim women as especially frequent targets in this regard.
Though it can’t be stressed enough that racism and Islamophobia are not particular to Quebec, as commentators in other parts of the Canadian state often imply, the utter hypocrisy that drives the ‘secularism’ in this legislation could hardly be more obvious. As TCRS points out, Bill 21 grants exceptions on enforcement as long as violations of supposed secular values are considered ‘emblematic or toponymical features of Quebec's cultural heritage.’ Indeed, shortly after the legislation was adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec, it was decided that it would be better to remove the crucifix that hung in the legislative chamber and find a somewhat more subtle location within the building to put in on display.
There has been important and ongoing opposition to Bill 21 in Quebec since it was first introduced. Last year, the first anniversary of its adoption was marked by a protest at Premier François Legault's Montreal office. Legal challenges to it are still underway but they must contend with the Quebec government’s decision to try and override constitutional protections. When the Canadian Constitution was ‘repatriated’ from the UK, in 1982, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted as part of the procedure. However, the Constitution Act that was adopted at that time includes a ‘notwithstanding clause’ that provides governments with significant powers to bypass the protections of the Charter. This clause was very exceptionally invoked by the Quebec government to try and insulate Bill 21 from court challenges as much as possible.
When Fatemeh Anvari was driven from her teaching job, there was a very precious outpouring of support for her in the community she is part of. Students from her school, along with parents and other residents of Chelsea took to the streets in solidarity with the victimised teacher. As one parent at a support rally put it, “It's real people who are in the untenable situation of having to choose between practising their religion, continuing to have their identity and being able to maintain a job. That is untenable." Other Muslim women have been deterred from taking employment before the present incident but, now that things have reached the level of teachers being put out of the classroom, we may expect resistance to Bill 21 to intensify.
Premier Legault has an ugly track record of tolerating and, in the case of Bill 21, fanning the flames of racism, while doggedly pretending it doesn’t exist in Quebec. Having said that, it must also be acknowledged that the practice of ‘Quebec bashing’ in other parts of the Canadian state is not a fanciful consideration. Solidarity and very necessary support for those inside Quebec who face Bill 21 and resist its implementation is all too often weakened and compromised by the fanciful and reactionary notion that racism is somehow less of problem in ‘English Canada.’
When Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman, died last year in a hospital in Joliette, north of Montreal, the neglect and racist abuse she had been subjected to caused an entirely justified outcry. Yet, it was also necessary to understand that comparably terrible treatment of Indigenous people seeking healthcare services occurs all across Canada with truly horrible frequency. When it comes to the specific question of Islamophobia, the old adage that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones couldn’t be more apt. When a Muslim family was murdered on the streets of London, Ontario, earlier this year, the dreadful act emerged out of a climate of anti-Muslim hatred that has been cultivated across the country by influential sections of the Canadian establishment.
To be sure, Bill 21, though it is enacted in the particular context of Quebec society, is a manifestation of an international wave of racism and Islamophobic bigotry that has intensified in recent years. In country after country, this has taken the form of the promotion of a distorted concept of ‘secular values.’ Linked to both the US-led war on terror and the racist targeting of immigrant communities in Western countries. Islamophobia has been seized upon by mainstream politicians moving closer to the embrace of overt racism and it has become a potent rallying call for the growing forces of the far right.
The impact of Quebec’s legislation has now reached the point where Muslim women are to be driven from their jobs. They will only be spared this if they are ready to face humiliation and sacrifice their religious beliefs and personal dignity to the god of a false and racist ‘secularism.’ This is a truly monstrous outrage and those who resist it should have the fullest support, across Canada and internationally. Bill 21 and the rising tide of hatred it expresses must be defeated.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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