Religious Symbols: Teaching Career Slipping Away for Sikh Student

Andy Riga, Montreal Gazette, March 29, 2019

A few months shy of an education degree, Amrit Kaur says her dream of working as a public school teacher in Quebec is slipping away.

A Sikh, the 28-year-old student wears a turban and would be barred from working in a public school under a bill, introduced Thursday, that would ban the wearing of religious symbols by some Quebec government employees, including new teachers.

Religious minorities, teachers’ unions and school boards denounced the proposed law.

“This is highly discriminatory; I’m really upset right now,” Kaur said in an interview minutes after Bill 21 was introduced. “You always thought that maybe this could happen but it was a maybe.”

She said the Coalition Avenir Québec government is sending “the message that a Sikh wearing a religious symbol or anybody wearing a religious symbol is a second-class citizen and can’t integrate into the fabric of Quebec.”

Teaching “in practice is already secular,” added Kaur, vice-president for Quebec at the World Sikh Organization. “Teachers don’t enforce their personal beliefs. We don’t talk about religion. We just talk about what’s stipulated in the curriculum.”

Teachers are expected to be the largest group of employees to be affected by Bill 21.

Under the proposal, public servants “in positions of authority” — including judges, police officers and school principals and vice-principals — will not be allowed to wear religious symbols on the job.

Teachers already employed are protected by a clause that allows them to continue to wear religious symbols “for as long as they exercise the same function within the same school board.”

But they would lose the protection should they become a vice-principal or principal; the bill implies the shield would also disappear if they temporarily become administrators, then go back to teaching.

“All of a sudden, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish teachers who wear religious symbols, we’re waking up to a new reality where we’re not going to be afforded the same opportunities as our fellow Quebecers and that makes me incredibly sad,” said Furheen Ahmed, a Westmount High School teacher who wears a hijab.

“What am I supposed to teach my two daughters as they get older? That if they chose to go into certain professions they have to rethink their dress?”

She said she feels sad for students at her multicultural school, a number of whom wear items of religious significance.

“These are young people who are thinking about their futures and making plans and they should be excited instead of now possibly crossing off certain career paths that they might have been interested in,” Ahmed said.

She understands many Quebecers favour a secular society, “but this law is not promoting secularism — this is racism, this is Islamophobic, this is xenophobic.”

Bill 21 is “marginalizing people; it’s saying, ‘You’re different, you don’t really belong here, if you want a life here, if you want to thrive in this province, you have to be like us because, for some reason, our way is better, it’s more normal.’”

Nadia Naqvi, a teacher at the Lester B. Pearson School Board who wears a hijab, said the bill is “state-sanctioned racism.”

“As a child of immigrants who was born and raised here, who was always told by her father, ‘I’m Pakistani, you are the Canadian, never let anybody make you feel like an ‘other,’ I can tell you that I’ve been ‘othered’ today,” Naqvi said.

Naqvi, who is on medical leave, said she finds it “abhorrent” that “a Muslim girl coming up through the school system will know she might not be able to be a teacher because her spirituality may increase and she may decide to put on a hijab.”

“It creates a two-tiered system where we have second-class citizens where because of your religion you cannot enter certain professions.”

She said she would never discuss her religion in class. “I’ve always been neutral. My students don’t know my opinions on anything. I want them to develop their own opinions.”

Anne Dionne, a vice-president at the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, a union that represents 70,000 teachers, said teachers should not be covered by the law because they “have a moral authority but not coercive power.”

She said many questions remain unanswered, such as how religious symbols will be defined and how the law will be enforced.

Religious symbols have never been an issue in Quebec schools and barring some potential recruits could exacerbate Quebec’s teacher shortage, Dionne added.

Another teachers’ union, the 40,000-member Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, said “not only does (the) bill violate freedom of religion and conscience, but it also threatens the working conditions of teachers.”

A day before the bill was introduced, the English Montreal School Board vowed to defy the law by allowing teachers to continue to wear religious symbols.

Dan Lamoureux, president of the Quebec English School Boards Association, on Thursday described the proposed law as “a divisive and an unnecessary piece of legislation that can only lead to societal discrimination.”

The Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec, which represents most French-language boards, said its members support state neutrality and gender equality.

But federation president Alain Fortier noted they also “advocate openness and inclusion. Learning to live together is an important part of educational projects in our schools. Certain aspects of the bill seem difficult to reconcile with these values.”

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