PM applauds Chelsea Bill 21 protestors, but stays out of fight for now
Anvari on staying: ‘I think it’s important that someone speaks up’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is praising parents in Chelsea for standing up against Quebec’s Bill 21 after elementary school teacher Fatemeh Anvari was removed from class for wearing a hijab.
In a statement to the Low Down Dec. 9, the Prime Minister’s office said they would follow Bill 21 “closely” as it winds its way through the Quebec Court of Appeals.
“Nobody in Canada should ever lose their job because of what they wear or their religious beliefs,” Trudeau’s office wrote in a statement to the Low Down. “What we’re seeing in Chelsea is a community coming together to stand up for their neighbour – a teacher, Fatemeh Anvari. And parents are having really difficult conversations with their kids.”
Those difficult conversations have led to citizen action in Chelsea, with parents launching a letter-writing campaign urging residents to put pressure on the Western Quebec School Board (WQSB), Quebec Premier François Legault, and local MNA Robert Bussière.
“We urge everyone to inform themselves on the problematic nature of Bill 21, its infraction on our human rights, and the impacts it is currently having on our students and teachers alike,” wrote a group of parents in the campaign, which was shared widely online. “Everyone’s voice matters; please do what you can to challenge Bill 21. The impacts are very real to us all.”
Parents also staged a protest in front of Bussière’s electoral office in Chelsea on Dec. 14. (see story page xx).
After six attempts to reach Bussière since Dec. 6, his press office finally responded Dec. 13 to say that: “Bill 21 was passed over two years ago and the Western Quebec School Board was aware of this law. Mr. Bussière has no further comments.”
Quebec Premier François Legault offered little sympathy for Anvari, saying that the WQSB should never have hired her in the first place. In an interview Dec. 10 with the Montreal Gazette and shared with the Low Down, Legault said secularism in Quebec “must be respected.”
“I want to remind everybody that Bill 21 became a law. In June 2019, it was voted democratically by the National Assembly. I think it’s a reasonable law, a balanced law,” said Legault. “In our law, only employees in positions of authority, including teachers, should not wear religious symbols while on duty. At home, in the street, they can do what they want.”
On Dec. 1, Anvari was told by the school that she could no longer teach her Grade 3 class because she wore a hijab. The school has since shifted her into a diversity and inclusion literacy role within the school. The Low Down broke what became an international story that was covered by every major news outlet in the country, as well as Newsweek and Reuters south of the border. Anvari’s story is igniting the national debate on Quebec’s discriminatory policies.
Quebec passed Bill 21 in 2019, but the Montreal English School board won a court ruling in April that exempted English school boards from many of the bill’s provisions. However, because Quebec appealed that ruling, the law remains in effect until heard at the appeals court.
WQSB interim chair Wayne Daly told the Low Down Dec. 10 that while his office does not agree with Bill 21, they must respect it. He said he had a choice to either abide by the law or risk losing his job.
“We have a judiciary responsibility to respect the law,” said Daly. “I don’t have to agree with the law, but I have to respect the law. You have two choices: either resign or do your job.” He said that while we are seeing a groundswell of support locally, the majority of Quebecers still voted for Bill 21. He said it’s clear, though, that Anglophones do not support the discriminatory bill.
“The anglophone community is against this. I can tell you that clearly,” he said. “Talking to the other director generals from the other school boards, the anglophones are clearly against this.”
The WQSB reiterated their stance on Bill 21, saying that “Western Québec believes a religious symbol worn by an educator does not have an impact on their ability to teach and provide quality education for our students. Our schools are inclusive learning environments where students are taught about acceptance, diversity and respect.”
Anvari was removed from her Grade 3 classroom in early December and was immediately shuffled into an inclusion and diversity role within Chelsea Elementary. While the optics seem ironic, Anvari said she sees it as an opportunity to have meaningful conversations with students about racism in Quebec.
“In this role, I still get to be an educator, and I get to have these important conversations with the kids,” she said on Dec. 9, while reading notes of support from parents and students posted on a fence outside the school.
She said she felt it was important to take the role to stand up for so many others who may be facing similar discrimination. “I didn’t want to disappear to the margins. I think that it’s important that someone speaks up,” Anvari told the Low Down. “...this is affecting so many people and not just those whose jobs are affected like myself, but also the kids and the lessons they take away.”
Anvari said she hopes her story will inspire others to come forward to tell theirs.
“I think it could be empowering to someone who might be nervous,” she added. “It’s nerve-wracking for sure. I feel nervous still, but I think it’s important.”
In a recent Toronto Star story published Dec. 13, Trudeau said he would stay out of the fight over Bill 21 for now.