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Parents, teachers, activists gather in Chelsea to protest ‘racist and discriminatory’ secularism law


Demonstration follows the reassignment of Fatemeh Anvari, a hijab-wearing teacher at Chelsea Elementary School

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Nearly 200 people gathered outside Gatineau MNA Robert Bussière’s constituency office on Tuesday to protest Quebec’s secularism law, which forbids certain civil servants, including schoolteachers, from wearing religious attire.

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The noon-hour demonstration in Chelsea followed the reassignment earlier this month of Fatemeh Anvari, a popular third grade teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, who was told she couldn’t continue to teach her class so long as she wears a hijab. Instead, she was given another role at the school.

“The law is racist and discriminatory,” said Patricia Etue, one of a group of former Western Quebec School Board teachers who showed up to lend their support. “It is harming women and it is harming Muslims.”

Former teacher Janet Intscher said that many of her colleagues were shocked by the law, which was known as Bill 21. “After having taught students the importance of diversity and inclusion for so many years, it was a slap in the face to have our government work directly against that.”

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Many in Tuesday’s crowd carried placards both in support of Anvari and against the law. “I won’t stand down!!” read one, “I stand up with Ms. Fatemeh.”

Emily Dwyer brought her two daughters, both Chelsea Elementary students, to the rally and carried a sign that read “Separate church and state, but don’t discriminate!”

“We all need to be standing up for the human rights of everyone,” Dwyer said. “And I think that Law 21, which is said to be about separating church and state, has the effect of discriminating against people. So we’re here to call on the government of Quebec to change the law.”

Among those who addressed the gathering, Lina El Bakir, the National Council of Canadian Muslims’ Quebec Advocacy Officer, said the law was antithetical to the Quebec in which she grew up.

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“Quebec’s values are the values of hospitality, of helpfulness, of humanity, and Bill 21 goes against all of this. So I’m not okay saying that Bill 21 represents Quebec’s values. That’s not true,” El Bakir said.

“I am Québécoise, I grew up in Quebec, I am against Bill 21 and I am here today to say it loudly.”

Motioning to those around her who came to lend support, she added: “This is the Quebec I know, with people coming together to do what’s right. To see all these allies really brings me hope. But honestly. I would expect nothing less from the Quebec that I know.”

Other speakers at Tuesday’s event included the Ligue des Droit et Libertés rights activist Blanche Roy, Outaouais Islamic Centre president Ibrahim Sballil, Chelsea Elementary School parent Micha Hoyt and Denise Giroux, a lawyer and labour relations officer.

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“This legislation seems to target Muslim women. Although (the government) says it applies to all religions equally, that’s not the case, because religions manifest themselves in different ways,” Roy said

“It’s very dangerous when the state starts involving itself in human rights and dictating to people how they should be, what they should wear, where they should go and what jobs they should have.”

Nadya Ali, an 11-year-old student at Chelsea Elementary School, also spoke at the rally, explaining how, unlike a religious cross or ceremonial knife, a hijab can’t simply be removed when it’s convenient.

“It’s something you can’t take off, like a cross. You can’t take it off and put it back on. You have to stick with it,” Ali said. “It’s a choice, but why do you have to choose between your religion or your job?”

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Bussière, who represents the Coalition Avenir Québec party in the province’s national assembly, did not appear at the demonstration, with a spokesperson from his office replying to an emailed request seeking comment: “Mr. Bussière will not comment on the situation in Chelsea.”

Amy Pitkethly, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s rally, said that, while Anvari’s reassignment sparked the rally, Tuesday’s demonstration was about more than simply that incident. “This isn’t about getting our teacher back. We want this bill gone. It was never a fair bill.”

The law is still being tested in the courts — an attempt by the English Montreal School Board for an injunction against Bill 21 failed in the Quebec Court of Appeal in early November, with the board subsequently indicating it would take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada. Meanwhile, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims filed submissions with the Quebec Court of Appeal on Dec. 2, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. Notwithstanding these legal challenges, Pitkethly says the provincial election expected next fall could equally settle the matter.

“If we have to vote (the governing Coalition Avenir Québec party) out, hopefully we can do that,” Pitkethly said. “I’m willing to do it that way. I don’t think any other party would have done this.”

bdeachman@postmedia.com

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