Chelsea lessons

Two years elapsed between the entry into force of the State Secularism Act and the first contentious case of hiring a veiled teacher in a Quebec school. We can draw two preliminary conclusions before measuring the implications of this decision.

On the one hand, there was no real urgency or imminent peril justifying the ban on the wearing of religious symbols by teachers when the Law was adopted in 2019. If veiled women had been in happening to surge into the public education network, today we would count cases like Fatemeh’s Anvari by the dozen.

The inclusion of teachers in Bill 21 remains the Achilles heel of the Caquist version of secularism. It was not part of the recommendations of the Bouchard-Taylor report, which limited itself to the prohibition of religious symbols for agents of the State in a situation of coercion. The duty always supports the spirit and the letter of the report on which the Act should have been modeled.

The argument put forward to explain the inclusion of teachers, namely the protection of the freedom of conscience of “our” children and adolescents, remains as tenuous as ever. Professors on the left and right alike interfere with the freedom of conscience of their pupils or students on a daily basis without the government feeling the need to act. The state and its institutions are already secular; no need for this surplus of secularism brought by the banishment of the veiled woman in public primary and secondary schools only. The legislative arsenal is very heavy for a threat whose demonstration remains to be done.

On the other hand, the defenders of the Law on secularism should tone down their criticisms and recognize, in the presence of a single and unique case in dispute, that the apprehended and much decried freedom killer did not take place. Contrary to what the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, suggests, the Chelsea teacher has not lost her job because of her religion. Rather, she was assigned to literacy and inclusion issues.

The case of Fatemeh Anvari has little to do with the expression of religious beliefs. The main interested party confided that she had made a gesture of political activism by claiming to wear the veil at school. A gesture of “resistance and resilience,” she said. The blame for the situation lies with the Western Quebec School Board, responsible for the hiring of Anvari.

In English Canada, many commentators and political leaders are pressuring Prime Minister Trudeau to get involved in the legal challenge to the law. They make fun of the Bouchard-Taylor report, of the difference in Quebec in matters of secularism and integration. They shamelessly assert that Quebec cannot be master of its institutions and of its unique trajectory on the North American continent. They will encourage without wavering the “partitionist” spirit at work in certain isolated corners of English school boards.

For now, the case of the Chelsea teacher is an exception. It should not be the prelude to other acts of provocation, or even of mistrust of the Law on the secularism of the State. During the study of bills on secularism and the reform of Bill 101, as well as at the recent congress of the Liberal Party of Quebec, English-speaking school boards reaffirmed the “exclusive right” of the Anglo minority to manage and to control its schools. Their desire for independence and autonomy, admittedly legitimate, do not give them the right to escape from the Quebec legislative framework.

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