A Quebec elementary school teacher has been reassigned from her classroom over Bill 21, the tough new French Language Bill, which includes a ban on anyone wearing face-covering headgear like a veil, niqab, burka or even a sign of crucifixes, from receiving public services like schools, hospitals, post offices and libraries.
But while the law may not be used against teachers, the principal of Beaurepaire Elementary School in Quebec has told some of her female students that their hijab can become an issue if they behave inappropriately.
The current debate over Bill 21 has not yet reached my suburban Toronto school, but, like me, many immigrant parents are raising issues about the proposal.
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was about 25 years old, I was not totally comfortable with my new religious beliefs when I started at a non-profit organization that works to integrate immigrants into British Columbia’s culture.
What’s important for Canada to embrace is that all Canadians, no matter their religion, should be able to participate in the economy and in society in the way they see fit without fear or discrimination.
All my colleagues in the organization were Canadian and wore their country’s flag, or a badge of service; the majority who looked Muslim did wear a sign of dedication to their community. It didn’t matter if we were the African Canadians or Italian Canadians; our organizations were the same. And, we were sure that that was our choice.
It was, however, the young women in my organization who were the most affected by their complex religious beliefs.
Despite my efforts to allow them to have their own choices and fully participate in the organization, I knew I needed to speak up.
It was the young women in my organization who were the most affected by their complex religious beliefs.
On the first day of my new job, a young woman quietly asked me, “Is it okay to wear a hijab,” and I replied, “Yes, it is.” And she said, “It is important for me, but don’t put it on too often because people might have the idea that we don’t eat, so might be suspicious.”
It was a strange response, and this showed me how serious concerns over identity really were.
Now, I know what the people at Beaurepaire Elementary School are going through: they, like me, need freedom to express your identity as you see fit. But, freedom only goes so far.
The Bill 21, as the parent of two young children, wanted me to remind that since I am one of the few who aren’t openly religious, it is important for all Canadians, no matter their religion, to be able to participate in the economy and in society in the way they see fit without fear or discrimination.
There is a big difference between protecting our rights as Canadians and creating unnecessary and divisive divisions within our society. The law is not needed.
Of course, Muslims want what is best for their children: to attend a school that is religiously diverse, which respects the diversity of religious belief and allows our children to freely express their identity and provide for their families.
Certainly not everyone will feel comfortable wearing a hijab to school. But we must not make it an issue.
Under the law, they do not have to. I, and others, believe that, if you just do the right thing, the law will follow you.
Yasmeen Bennett is the president of the Toronto Board of Education, Ontario.