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Bill 21 is 'divisive and unnecessary,' school boards association says

People stand arm in arm during a protest against Bill 21 at Westmount High School in Montreal, April 3, 2019.
People stand arm in arm during a protest against Bill 21 at Westmount High School in Montreal, April 3, 2019.

On a practical level, the law will be very difficult, if not impossible to enforce, says Russell Copeman, the executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association

Quebec’s new secularism law is divisive, unnecessary and contrary to the values taught in English schools, Russell Copeman, the executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, said on Monday.

On a practical level, the law will be very difficult, if not impossible to enforce, he said.

“The law creates various categories of employees who will not be able to wear religious symbols and contains a grandfather clause (for current teachers providing they don’t change jobs).”

He said there could easily be a situation where a new principal posted to a school sees an employee wearing a hijab, but does not know whether the employee is a teacher, a school psychologist, a lunch monitor or an after- school monitor.

“Are you going to stop someone in the hall and say are you a teacher or a vice-principal and when were you hired? It is quite ludicrous, actually. It sounds crazy.”

He said he is also worried about an amendment that covers the monitoring of the new law.

“Are inspectors going to walk down the halls of schools once every year, once every five years — is it becoming a snitch line?”

The controversial law bans the wearing of religious symbols by certain public servants in positions of authority, including judges, police officers and public school teachers. Teachers in the private education system and those who work for the Cree and Katimivik School Boards are not subject to the legislation.

The QESBA has not made a decision on whether it will contest the law in court.

During hearings in Quebec City, the group argued that the English education system is actually shielded from such laws by virtue of existing Constitutional rights , as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

A landmark 1990 ruling, Mahe v. Alberta, concluded in a case on Alberta francophone rights that minority language representatives have exclusive authority to make decisions on the language of instruction and facilities including recruitment and hiring.

At McGill University’s Faculty of Education, staff are disappointed that the law has been adopted and are particularly bothered by late amendments dealing with monitoring and enforcement.

It pits people against one another, which is very troubling.”

“It pits people against one another, which is very troubling, (especially) for teachers who have opposing views,” said Lisa Starr, who is director of internships and student affairs

“I hate the idea that a child is going to be put in a position where they would have an obligation to police other people. There are a number of possibilities that don’t bode well.”

Several students who wear hijabs have contacted the department to find out how they will be affected by the secularism legislation once they graduate.

Other students, who don’t wear religious garb, have also expressed concern about the legislation from an equity and inclusion standpoint, Starr said.

Student teachers won’t be affected by the new law because they aren’t official government employees. But she said that is of little consolation.

“We are training them for a job milieu that they can’t enter into.”

A spokesperson for the English Montreal School Board called the new legislation a bad law.

“In the 20 years I have been at the board, there has never been an issue of a religious symbol impacting a teacher’s ability to get in front of a class,” Michael Cohen said. “There is nothing positive about it for our school board or any school board.”

The EMSB has no idea how many of its teachers wear religious symbols, but Cohen said they did have some student teachers who wore head coverings this year.

Earlier this year, the board’s commissioners, and those at the Lester B. Pearson school board, adopted a resolution saying they would not apply Bill 21 in its schools.

Cohen said the board’s human resources department will study the law in detail before deciding on its next step.

School boards across Montreal are already struggling to hire French teachers and the new law could make that even more difficult because they will not be able to hire Muslim teachers who wear hijabs.

kwilton@postmedia.com

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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