The effects of Law 21 on Education Faculties in Quebec: “We don’t want people like you here”

By effectively barring Muslim women with hijabs from working as teachers, the Law diminishes the religious diversity of the population of Quebec school teachers.

One day a student in Bronwen’s Bachelor of Education course at McGill University asked to share a story from her day substitute teaching in an elementary school. A child wondered why she wore a hijab, and this young teacher took this opportunity to say some of what this symbol meant to her as a Muslim woman. She was thrilled by the children's engagement and excitement at the chance to ask questions they hadn’t voiced before, and she described this kind of exchange as one of the reasons she wanted to be a teacher.

Unfortunately, these kinds of opportunities for learning across differences are now less possible in Quebec.

In the summer of 2019, the Quebec government passed Bill 21 into law: The Act Respecting the Laicity of the State. The process of creating this legislation long predated the government which passed it, with three1 previous failed attempts to pass laws prohibiting public sector employees from any display of religious symbols in the workplace.

The purpose of Law 21:

"is to affirm the laicity of the State and to set out the requirements that follow from it. To that end, the bill provides that the laicity of the State is based on four principles: the separation of State and religions, the religious neutrality of the State, the equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion...The bill proposes to prohibit certain persons from wearing religious symbols while exercising their functions" (National Assembly of Quebec, 2019).

In Quebec, these “certain persons” include public school teachers, which means that teachers who wear a religious symbol such as the hijab are no longer eligible to be hired by school boards. Teachers who already had a permanent position were not fired; the law affects substitute and new teachers employed by a Centre de Services Scolaire. This law is not to impact student teachers completing their teacher education programs and their mandatory teaching practica. As a group of teacher educators from five universities in Quebec, we were concerned about the effects of this legislation on student and staff populations in university education faculties.

Under the auspices of the OFDE (Observatoire sur la Formation à la Diversité et l’Équité, an academic observatory on teacher education for diversity and equity), we conducted a survey2 that aimed to determine the effects of Law 21 on faculties and departments of education in Quebec universities, their students and staff (Potvin et al., 2020).

Seeking to understand the impact of Law 21 on members of Faculties of Education as comprehensively as possible, the survey asked questions about institutional responses as well as individual experiences and observations. We found that institutional responses largely sought to denounce or mitigate any potential adverse effects of Law 21 on their students. For instance, university staff unions, faculties, and departments publicly came out against the Law in statements on websites and other communications.

The Law does not apply to students, and so should have no impact on student teacher placement and evaluation; many departments made this clear to school boards, supervising teachers, and students. Some departments and unions issued statements of support for students, including Muslim students in particular. A few communicated that they would find alternatives for any students experiencing hostility in their school placements, or if they were denied a practicum position by any school board or school (which would be against the law).

Despite this, there were many reports, particularly from student teachers, about having either experienced or witnessed discriminatory and negative treatment related to the new Law. Several factors increased the chance of survey respondents having experienced or witnessed this treatment: being female (20% of female respondents said yes, versus 7% of male respondents); belonging to a visible or religious minority (50% responded yes); being first or second generation immigration (67% responded yes); and most of all, having a first language other than French (76.1% responded yes).

Specific comments indicate that negative or discriminatory effects of the Law were largely directed at women who wear a hijab: this should come as no surprise to the many who warned that these measures would especially marginalize or harm Muslim women. Most of the reports from students related to acts or comments seen as hurtful or discriminatory (37%). Some respondents described hateful comments from their cooperating teacher or field supervisor, such as : “We don’t want a teacher who’ll convert our students ” or “ this isn’t Hallowe’en, we don’t want women wearing costumes at work ”, or “ Go back to your country. We don’t want people like you here.” One respondent described hostile treatment as a student teacher from other teachers in the staff room, including comments that the veil was a sign of religious indoctrination forced upon her by her parents, or a political act to control women.

In Quebec, these “certain persons” include public school teachers, which means that teachers who wear a religious symbol such as the hijab are no longer eligible to be hired by school boards.

Another 24% of reported negative experiences related to individual rights and freedoms. Respondents spoke of having their choice of school placement limited, or of being told by a university instructor that other students did not want to work in a group with them.

Other impacts included hostile attitudes and looks, as well as adverse effects on mental health, including feelings of isolation, vulnerability, and experiencing “stress emotionally and physically.” Respondents also described adverse effects of the Law on their academic achievement or professional journey, including students either choosing or being asked to leave their Bachelor of Education program because of lack of career prospects, failing their student teaching placement because of wearing a hijab, or being called upon less for substitute teaching because of suspicions about religious adherence or having an Arabic name.

Respondents also described an altered culture in university classrooms, with “lesser integration of students who wear the headscarf in the class dynamics” and these students experiencing discomfort. Others spoke of a newly charged atmosphere of debate in university classrooms, including students with strong opinions about Law 21 challenging classmates wearing headscarves with questions such as “what do you think?”.

University personnel were largely unaware of experiences of discrimination faced by student teachers: almost half indicated not knowing if there had been any reports made by students, and only 6.6% of personnel were aware of reports of negative and discriminatory treatment. In contrast, 16.5% of students indicated that they had been victims of or witnesses to the adverse effects of the Law.

However, when aware of discriminatory treatment, some universities acted, with respondents from two universities noting that student teachers had been moved because of hostile treatment in their placements and another saying they were working to support students in dealing with “islamophobia and xenophobia”. In response to the Law, faculty members also described modifying their curriculum to include more information about inclusion and diversity and to emphasize the need to respect differences in schools. Instructors also included direct instruction on the Law and its potential impacts in their courses.

Law 21 reflects and seems to foster populist anxieties about religious and cultural difference, including a growing islamophobia in Quebec and many other places, whose starkest expression was the 2017 terrorist attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in which six were killed and five injured. However, it also reflects a particular theory of social cohesion and integration, what gets referred to in Quebec as vivre ensemble, reflected in its intercultural policies.

Canadian multiculturalism has been rejected in Quebec as ghettoizing minorities, resulting in social fragmentation rather than a strong shared sense of identity and belonging. (It was also rejected as an official policy in the early 1970s by some sovereigntists and nationalists as minimizing Quebec’s claims for special status as a distinct people and society). Quebec’s dual majority/minority status drives the story of interculturalism by placing greater emphasis on integrating newcomers into a common public culture, with the French language as its cornerstone (along with the same commitments as multiculturalism to democratic institutions, rights and freedoms). According to the theory of integration informing Law 21, religious symbols are a barrier to social cohesion. Worn by anyone in a position of public authority, such as a judge, police officer, or teacher, they are also seen as potentially jeopardising impartial treatment and justice, as well as undermining the value of state secularism or laïcité. (Why teachers are seen as needing to be impartial in this same way is never explained; while the Bouchard-Taylor report had recommended this for judges and police officers, they did not do the same for teachers.) However, the original purpose of secularism was the separation of the political state from religious authority to guarantee freedom of religion for all citizens, particularly religious minorities. In terms of the Law’s own definition of the laicity of the state, the last two principles about “equality of all citizens, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion” are neglected in favor of the first two principles about “the separation of State and religions, the religious neutrality of the State”.

Law 21 reflects and seems to foster populist anxieties about religious and cultural difference, including a growing islamophobia in Quebec and many other places, whose starkest expression was the 2017 terrorist attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in which six were killed and five injured. However, it also reflects a particular theory of social cohesion and integration, what gets referred to in Quebec as vivre ensemble, reflected in its intercultural policies.

Unfortunately, if Law 21 was designed to reduce religious tensions, our survey results suggest that it has had the opposite effect, inflaming existing social suspicions and prejudices. Our data portrays an increasingly hostile university and school environment for female Muslim teachers. Newly qualified teachers committed to wearing their headscarves are withdrawing applications for employment.

According to our survey, potential teachers are already switching out of Bachelor of Education programs, and an unknown number of others will no longer consider teaching at all. By effectively barring Muslim women with hijabs from working as teachers, the Law diminishes the religious diversity of the population of Quebec school teachers. With a large and growing gap between a racialized and culturally minoritized student body and a teaching contingent that remains predominantly White, middle class, and of European extraction, the teaching staff will remain even less representative.

The Quebec interculturalism policy of vivre ensemble is meant to encourage positive relations and interactions between citizens of diverse cultures, faiths, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. Removing Muslim female teachers from the teaching staff not only screams of inequity, but deprives the whole school population of the opportunity to be exposed to religious diversity and learn to respect differences. Banning religious symbols for professionals sends a message that symbols such as hijabs or turbans are less professional, less cosmopolitan, and ultimately unacceptable. How can we expect to foster understanding and respect for differences by giving the impression that some differences are negative, inferior, undesirable? This is not a constructive way to promote the vivre ensemble of Quebec’s intercultural policies.

Proponents of this law argue that religious beliefs are not forbidden, but are simply not to be visible in the public workplace, because they are divisive. As in French republicanism, all humans are equal before the law. However, in order to achieve social cohesion, does everyone have to dress the same? What does this say about accepting other differences (gender, racial, ethnic, or ability)? The implication that physically removing a visible symbol changes the faith, values, ethics or professional capacities of an individual demonstrates a limited understanding of how people enact their ideas and beliefs, creating even more barriers to the promotion of vivre ensemble.

Rather than impeding positive relations and inclusion, we argue that religious symbols are a way of promoting peaceful relations and respect for diversity. We have only to consider our opening anecdote describing the positive, educational exchange of a young Muslim teacher with her primary students to illustrate how visible differences are a rich resource and advantage for promoting intercultural understanding, respect and positive relations. Fortunately for this student teacher, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled on April 20th, 2021 that the Law violates minority-language education rights and so cannot be applied to English schools (a decision the Quebec Justice Minister has announced it will appeal). However, this Court has upheld the general constitutionality of the Law.

The OFDE (Observatoire sur la formation à la diversité et l’équité) is the structural body that coordinates the work of a network of professors and lecturers from twelve Quebec universities. This community of practice includes those who teach on ethnocultural, religious and linguistic diversities in education.

Footnotes

1Law 21 (La loi 21) is the latest response to the media-fuelled debate in Quebec on the topic of reasonable accommodation for ethno-cultural and religious minority groups; previous versions of this response include the 2007 Bouchard-Taylor Commission (Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences), as well as Bill 60, or the Quebec Charter of Values, proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013 (which did not pass), and the Liberal government’s Bill 62, An Act to Foster Adherence to State Religious Neutrality (which did).

2972 questionnaires were completed and considered in our study. 94% of these were completed in French, although the questionnaire was sent to all French and English universities in Quebec. Most of the surveys were completed by undergraduate students (28%) and cooperating teachers (26 %). Many graduate students (16 %), professors (15 %), and sessional lecturers (13 %) completed the survey, along with a few administrators. 78% of the respondents identify French as a first language, 75% are female, and 72% are non-immigrants. 12 % belong to a visible or religious minority.

References

Bouchard, G. and Taylor, C. (2008). Fonder l’avenir. Le temps de la conciliation. Rapport de la Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles. Québec.

Gouvernement du Québec (1998). Une école d’avenir: politique d’intégration scolaire et d’éducation interculturelle. Ministère de l’Éducation. http://www.education.gouv.qc.ca/fileadmin/site_web/documents/education/adaptation-scolaire-services-comp/PolitiqueMatiereIntegrationScolEducInterculturelle_UneEcoleAvenir_f.pdf. Accessed 29 March 2021.

Magder, J. and Authier, P. “Bill 21 forced teachers to withdraw job applications, EMSB says.” Montreal Gazette, 27 September 2019, https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/english-montreal-school-board-to-challenge-legality-of-bill-21. Accessed 29 March 2021.

National Assembly of Quebec (2019). Bill 21: An Act respecting the laicity of the State. http://www2.publicationsduquebec.gouv.qc.ca/dynamicSearch/telecharge.php?type=5&file=2019C12A.PDF. Accessed 29 March 2021.

Potvin, M., Nenciovici, L., Lefrançois, D., Tremblay, S., Steinbach, M., Low, B., Demers, S., Doré, E. and Nsabimana, L. (2020). Findings from the Survey on the effects of Bill 21 on Faculties and Departments of Education in Quebec universities, their students and personnel – Executive Summary. Observatoire sur la formation à la diversité et l’équité. http://ofde.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Bill-21-survey-Executive-summary-13-12-2020.pdf. Accessed 06 April 2021.


Topics addressed in this article

Share this page

Show your support

Since the beginning of the pandemic, our writers and researchers have provided groundbreaking commentary and analysis that has shaped Canada's response to COVID-19. We've fought for better supports for workers affected by pandemic closures, safer working conditions on the frontline, and more. With the launch of the new Monitor site, we're working harder than ever to share even more progressive news, views and ideas for Canada's road to recovery. Help us grow.

Support the Monitor