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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Greenway

Big city mayors step up to fight Bill 21

Protesters in Chelsea stood behind Chelsea teacher Fatemeh Anvari, who was removed from class for wearing a hijab. Carl Hager photo

Big city mayors across the country are joining the fight against Bill 21 and standing behind Chelsea Elementary School teacher Fatemeh Anvari, who was removed from her Grade 3 classroom for wearing a hijab.

Anvari’s story – which started in a little school just off Scott Road in Chelsea with fewer than 300 students – has sparked outrage across the country, with Brampton, Ont. Mayor Patrick Brown calling on 100 fellow mayors from Canada’s largest cities to help fund the legal challenge against Bill 21.

Brown called the Quebec legislation, which bars public servants in roles of authority, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols, “blatant racism and discrimination,” in an interview with the Low Down Dec. 16.

“It’s wrong. I think it’s as simple as that,” Brown told the Low Down Dec. 15, a day after his council passed a motion to contribute $100,000 to the legal fight. That legal fight is being led by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the World Sikh Organization, as well as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” added Brown. “We don’t have second-class citizenship in this country. I don’t buy any talking points or spin on how you can put lipstick on this pig,” he said about Bill 21. “It’s ugly. It’s blatant racism and discrimination.”

Anvari, who taught English at the school, was removed from her classroom on Dec. 1 for wearing a hijab and was reassigned to an inclusion and diversity awareness role within the school. Her story has reignited the national debate on Quebec’s controversial Bill 21, with politicians across the country speaking out against it. In April, the Montreal English School Board won a ruling, granting it a stay from many of Bill 21’s provisions. However, because the province appealed that ruling, the law remains in effect. The case is currently winding its way through the Quebec Court of Appeals.

Brown, who represents one of Canada’s most diverse populations, said he has heard from “horrified” residents who are concerned about how the bill will affect minorities in Quebec. He said the push for funding is to “level the playing field” for marginalized communities fighting against an entire province.

“I just don’t think it’s a fair fight, and I think if we are talking about the Charter and religious freedom, it should be a fair legal fight,” Brown told the Low Down Dec. 17, referring to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “When you get small not-for-profits in a fight against the government of Quebec with unlimited legal resources, that’s not a fair legal fight. We need a level playing field, but I think Canada’s big cities are going to make sure we get a level playing field.”

Since Brown penned an open letter to Canada’s biggest cities, Toronto City Council agreed to join the fight, pledging $100,000 on Dec. 16. Toronto Mayor John Tory said the contribution makes it clear that Toronto opposes the controversial bill.

“We cannot simply stand by as Torontonians and Canadians and see a law like this diminish the protection and respect accorded religious and other basic freedoms by our Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms,” said Tory in a statement.

Winnipeg and Calgary have also indicated that they will contribute to the legal fund for a Supreme Court challenge.

Chelsea Mayor Pierre Guénard said that his council decided not to contribute to the legal fund. He told the Low Down that because Bill 21 is a provincial issue, it is out of the municipality’s jurisdiction.

“This is a provincial issue, it’s not in our competency,” Guénard told the Low Down. “In Chelsea, we fight to maintain our infrastructure and our roads and things like that, so we won’t put money [into the legal fund]. We realize that the population in Chelsea mobilized, they gathered, and that’s what a population should do when they find something that is unfair.”

He told the Low Down that what happened to Anvari does not reflect what Chelsea and its residents stand for.

“It happened on our territory, it’s unfortunate, but at the same time, as a municipality, we are inclusive, we are respectful,” he said. “It doesn’t represent the population of Chelsea.”

Members of Chelsea council released a statement Dec. 10, calling the bill “discriminatory,” and said they will soon pass a resolution to sign onto the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities — a network of municipalities that aim to improve policies against racism discrimination, exclusion, and intolerance.

NCCM communications coordinator Fatema Abdalla said, while the financial contributions will undoubtedly help fund their Supreme Court Challenge, she doesn’t believe there will ever be a level playing field when it comes to marginalized communities.

“Financially, it’s one thing, but the playing field here is racialized communities against an entire province,” she said. “Regardless of the funding, there is still a lot more that needs to happen on the parts

of all levels of government, whether it be the federal government or other municipalities stepping up to do what they can in the fight against Bill 21.”

Abdalla said Bill 21 isn’t about secularism, despite political rhetoric.

“It’s a clearly discriminatory bill, which is targeting religious groups,” she said. “Whether it be Sikhs who wear the turban or Muslims who wear the hijab or Jews who wear the Kippah…this is not a conversation about secularism but a conversation about discrimination.”

The NCCM is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene. Trudeau has said publicly that he disagrees with the law, but will stay out of the fight for now.

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