Que­bec teach­ers de­cry pro­posed re­li­gious sym­bol ban


Am­rit Kaur’s tur­ban never leaves her body, no mat­ter what she does.

The 27-year-old stu­dent teacher from Vau­dreuil-do­rion, west of Mon­treal, has even fig­ured out a way to shower with it on, by ty­ing it around her waist while she washes her hair.

Kaur, a Sikh woman work­ing on a Bach­e­lor of Ed­u­ca­tion de­gree, is one of many Que­be­cers who could see her ca­reer choices lim­ited if the prov­ince’s newly elected govern­ment goes through with a prom­ise to ban cer­tain state em­ploy­ees from wear­ing re­li­gious sym­bols in the work­place.

She is among those ask­ing premier-des­ig­nate Fran­cois Le­gault to re­con­sider a pro­posal that would ap­ply to state em­ploy­ees who oc­cupy po­si­tions of author­ity, in­clud­ing judges, po­lice of­fi­cers and teach­ers.

For Kaur at least, tak­ing off her tur­ban isn’t an op­tion.

“I can’t dis­so­ci­ate my­self from it, be­cause it’s a part of me,” she said.

And she feels that ac­cept­ing a desk job – an op­tion pro­posed by Le­gault’s Coali­tion Avenir Que­bec – would be a dis­ser­vice not only to her­self but to her stu­dents, who come from di­verse back­grounds and need to see that di­ver­sity re­flected in the front of their class­rooms.

“You’re sup­posed to have those dis­cus­sions about in­clu­siv­ity, that we’re all dif­fer­ent, we all have spe­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics,” Kaur said in a phone in­ter­view from Ot­tawa, where she’s com­plet­ing her de­gree.

“To say that you can be dif­fer- ent as a class, but your teach­ers have to be this (cer­tain) way, sets the prece­dent that this is the norm, and it’s not OK to just live your truth.”

Like Kaur, Na­marta Malhi be­lieves politi­cians are try­ing to cre­ate a prob­lem where none ex­ists.

Both say they’ve grown up in the prov­ince, learned French, and have al­ways felt like they be­longed in Que­bec so­ci­ety.

“There has never been a case, to my knowl­edge, when an author­ity fig­ure is not per­form­ing a task prop­erly be­cause they have this thing on their head, be­cause they’re cov­er­ing their hair,” said Malhi, a 20-year-old stu­dent.

As a bap­tized Sikh woman, Malhi said wear­ing her tur­ban was her own choice. To her, it is an ar­ti­cle of faith and a sym­bol that she is equal to her male coun­ter­parts.

She said she un­der­stands that the prov­ince’s his­tory, which in­cluded Catholic con­trol over schools and other in­sti­tu­tions, has caused some Que­be­cers to fear any sign of re­li­gion in pub­lic life.

But she said she also can’t ac­cept that the ar­ti­cles of her faith, which in­clude a tur­ban and a kir­pan, or sword, could pre­vent her from pur­su­ing a ca­reer in law or govern­ment.

The Coali­tion Avenir Que­bec swept to power in last week’s provin­cial elec­tion, win­ning 74 of the prov­ince’s 125 rid­ings.

One day later, the Coali­tion leader said he would in­voke the not­with­stand­ing clause if nec­es­sary to over­ride the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms and en­sure pub­lic of­fi­cials in po­si­tions of author­ity don’t wear re­li­gious sym­bols, in­clud­ing tur­bans, hi­jabs, crosses and Jewish kip­pahs.

Mon­treal teacher Furheen Ahmed, who wears a hi­jab, said she has faith the mea­sure will fall through, as did the Parti Que­be­cois’ 2013 pro­posed Char­ter of Val­ues.

But if it doesn’t, the West­mount High School English, his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy teacher said she’d fight for her rights and those of her col­leagues, although she’s not yet sure what form that ac­tion will take.

Rob Green, a fel­low teacher from the school, said many of Ahmed’s col­leagues will be fight­ing right there with her.

In the past, he said teach­ers have held demon­stra­tions, cre­ated vi­ral videos and donned re­li­gious sym­bols en masse as a form of sup­port.

“If they dare come into our school and try to re­move teach­ers or give us desk jobs, we will make a pub­lic spec­ta­cle of this and do as much po­lit­i­cal dam­age to the govern­ment as we pos­si­bly can,” he said in a phone in­ter­view.

Malhi, Kaur and Ahmed all said they don’t be­lieve Le­gault’s claim that there’s a “broad con­sen­sus” that such a mea­sure is nec­es­sary, point­ing to sur­veys that show iden­tity is­sues are low on most peo­ple’s pri­or­ity lists.

And they all have a sim­i­lar re­quest for Le­gault: they want him to look in their class­rooms, and open a di­a­logue with the com­mu­ni­ties his poli­cies will af­fect.

“I’d in­vite them in my class­room and say, come look at what goes on in my class­room and what we’re learn­ing and dis­cussing, and see for your­self if it’s not neu­tral be­cause I’m wear­ing some­thing on my head,” Ahmed said.

“And I’d ask them: ‘What are you afraid of?’ Be­cause to me this is com­ing from a place of ig­no­rance and/or fear, and the ig­no­rance, if you come sit in the class­room and see what hap­pens, that might be lifted.”


Am­rit Kaur is study­ing to be a teacher and is con­cerned a Que­bec govern­ment ban on wear­ing re­li­gious sym­bols in the work­place will have far-reach­ing reper­cus­sions.

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