Public Employees in Canada May No Longer Be Able to Wear Headscarves to Work

Written by: Meredith Antell

On Thursday, May 25th, the Quebec government proposed a bill restricting public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols while working. If it is approved, the prohibition will be expected to take effect in June. This would mean that public school teachers, judges, police officers, prosecutors, prison guards, and school principals would all be barred from donning Jewish skullcaps, turbans, Catholic crosses, or hijabs. Not surprisingly, this announcement has exasperated underlying cultural tensions.

Although polls show that nearly two out of three residents in the province support the ban, it has also heard strong criticism. The reality is that the ban would fall most heavily on hijab-wearers (mostly teachers) since few police officers or prosecutors wear skullcaps or turbans. Additionally, advocated for religious and human rights identified this bill as a “breach of religious freedom.” They also pointed out that it goes against Canada’s projection of itself as an open, multicultural society. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that despite the fact that Canada is a secular country, it was unimaginable “that in a free society, we would legitimize the discrimination of citizens based on their religion.” The director of Amnesty International for French-speaking Canada, Isabelle Langlois, adds that the ban would violate international law protecting freedom of expression. Many other members of the community have spoke out to voice their opinions.

Nadia Naqvi, a schoolteacher in Quebec questioned what message the ban would send to her ninth grade students. “We’re supposed to teach them to stand up for their beliefs,” she said.

Maha Kassef, an elementary school teacher in Montreal, would rather lose her job than comprise her values in front of children.

According to Heidi Yetman, the president of the teachers union for Quebec’s English-language school system, “This goes completely against the whole idea of educating kids with critical minds.” Although students “may walk into a class and notice it,” she said, “after a week, when they get to know the person, they don’t even see it anymore.” She also pointed out that if anything, “adults are the ones who are kind of wrecking it for the future, because we come from a different generation, [and] maybe we see things differently.”

On the other hand, provincial Premier François Legault believes that those who hold positions of authority should not be promoting their faith while they serve the public. The bill, he says, is necessary to preserve the secular values of the province. The ruling Coalition Avenir Quebec adds that the ban is not aimed at one specific religion, but rather is a move toward a secular future

Marc-André Gosselin, spokesman for the government, believes that “Bill 21 is the logical next step after the confessionalization of school boards that occurred in the late ‘90s.” Children are “more easily influenced” than adults, says David Rand, president of the Quebec-based Atheist Freethinkers. Because of this, wearing religious symbols leads to “passive proselytizing.” 

Other supporters of the bill say it is necessary to protect secular liberal values like respect for women. Within the same vein, Isabelle Charest, Quebec’s minister for women’s rights, has referred to the hijab as a symbol of oppression. “When a religion dictates clothing…this is not freedom of choice,” she said. “My values are that a woman should be free to wear what she wants to wear or not wear.” 

In order for the ban to pass, Quebec’s government has taken advantage of the “notwithstanding clause,” constitutional loophole  that enables Canadian legislature to override constitutional rights like freedom of religion or expression. Additionally, a grandfather clause would exempt current teachers from the bill in an attempt to gain more support for the legislation. However, these employees could not be promoted if they continue to wear headscarves. The ban will most likely pass in the primarily right-leaning  Quebec legislature.

Gregory Bordan, a leading Canadian constitutional lawyer and wearer of a skullcap, notes that the bill would give politicians too much power in determining what is legal regarding human rights issues. Furthermore, “this proposal will marginalize Muslim women in the workplace and goes against freedom of religion in both Canada and Quebec” said Mohamed Labidi, who was president of the Quebec City mosque during its attack two years ago. Shahad Salman, a lawyer and wearer of a headscarf, explores what implications this bill may have for Canadian students. “Every young person who aspires to be a judge, a teacher or a police officer and wears a headscarf will think that they have no future in this province and it will push Muslims away from Quebec,” she says. 
Previous governments have experimented with similar legislation. Yet Coalition Avenir Quebec now has the votes to pass it.