Secularism in action

Bill 21’s consequences on Muslim women wanting to teach in Quebec

Fatima Khan’s course material. Courtesy Fatima Khan

Fatima Khan is the definition of a powerhouse, with an indestructible dedication to her passion as an art educator. However, due to Quebec's secularism law, none of Khan's devotion or skills matter because her religion makes her ineligible to work in the province's public school system.

Khan's current norm consists of working more than 12 hours everyday, five days per week, with her weekends booked up with a part-time job. Anytime Khan finds herself in a rare moment of quiet, she leverages her peace to prepare her art lessons for her students. 

She is about one month away from graduating with a degree in art education specialization at Concordia—her second degree from the university. 

"It's so intense, I don't know how I am doing it," Khan said, exhaling.

To graduate, Khan must complete four internships for her degree: two at an elementary school and two at a high school. She must accomplish 700 hours in internships throughout her entire degree. Her final year consisted of 140 hours in her fall semester and 350 hours in her winter semester, all while still attending classes, keeping up with course material, preparing lesson plans for her students and maintaining a steady income by working from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends at a library. 

Most days, she leaves her house at 7:15 a.m. and doesn't get home until close to 9 p.m.

By their second internship, students in the art education specialization can begin substitute teaching, or in other words, start getting paid for the work they already do.

Khan was eager to start substitute teaching. To become a registered substitute teacher, she had to fill in the required documents with the help of her supervisor or principal, and Khan did just that. However, overcome by busyness, Khan couldn't complete the forms. 

She would try again the following year, just in time for her final internships.

Khan started her final internships in September 2023. She taught two classes per week in the fall semester and, in the winter, led a total of seven art classes for five days per week. 

When it came time for Khan to choose her final internship placement, her decision was a no-brainer. Khan sought to finish off strong at the English primary and secondary school St. Johns in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, where she and a sizable chunk of her family are former students. The school is well known to her, as are the staff, the community and the space. She could have chosen any school but chose St. Johns for its familiarity.

With one placement to go, familiar faces, and a comfortable environment where she'd frequently be teaching, Khan felt it was time to try again with her substitute teaching application. Upon giving her completed forms to the school's secretary, the secretary assured Khan that she would have nothing to worry about; her forms would be taken care of and she was on the cusp of becoming a registered substitute. 

About an hour after submitting her forms, the secretary came to the art class Khan led. "The principal wants to see you," she told Khan.

At the time, the principal was Colleen Lauzier, who already knew most of Khan's siblings and her parents.

Khan had no idea what to expect of her summoning; what came next never even crossed her mind. 

When Khan sat down with Lauzier, the principal began explaining the parameters of Bill 21. 

Bill 21 was established in 2019 and declares Quebec a secular state. The law prohibits public sector workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job, such as judges, police officers and teachers. Those exempt from the law include members of the national assembly and public sector workers employed before March 2019 as long as they remain in their positions.

Khan recalled Lauzier underlining how she could not be hired and that submitting her documents was pointless.

Khan said Lauzier asked whether she would remove her hijab when she came in as a substitute. This meant Khan could wear her hijab on days she is interning, yet she must set aside her faith on the days she is substitute teaching and being financially compensated. Lauzier denies that she asked Khan to remove her hijab.

Khan was appalled.

To Khan, Lauzier knew of her Muslim faith and knew removing her hijab was not an option.

"To answer your question, no, I will not be removing my hijab on the days I will be subbing or anywhere else," replied Khan.

According to Khan, Lauzeir apologized, affirming to Khan that she must abide by the law and refused to hire her.

Khan then asked Lauzier if she could at least put her name in the system so that if the law were to be abolished, Khan could start substitute teaching.

Khan recounted Lauzier's denial again.

Khan said Lauzier told her that if the law were to be abolished, she would hire Khan right on the spot—even if her documents were not entirely completed—and that Khan would have Lauzier's full support.

Lauzier's comments confused Khan, "I was thinking, 'Why would I need your support then? By the time I graduate, I am going to be a qualified art educator, I don't need your support then. Right now, we are trying to fight this discriminatory law, and you are not being supportive.'" 

Khan was enraged. She thought the interaction in the principal's office was racist and that Lauzier demonstrated no care for her situation.

"If I can't teach, and I know I can't teach here, the least you could do is support me in this whole process," Khan told The Link.

Khan at least hoped Lauzier would pretend to show solidarity by trying to speak with the school board and seeing what she could do. Yet being told upfront that she could not be hired because of her hijab left Khan disheartened, questioning the time and effort she had put into St. Johns.

"I'm giving so much," stressed Khan. "She could have just pretended or been a little more sympathetic. She could've made that little gesture of kindness."

Khan questions working in a community setting when its foundation is based on exclusion and secularism. She noted how barring her from teaching impacts her and the students.

"Right now, in secondary three, there is a student who is fairly new and Muslim. When I'm in class, his face lights up because representation matters," Khan said, stressing the word representation. 

Growing up, Khan did not have representation in the classroom. "For Colleen to make that decision without even a second thought for me or the students or the community was very evident of a privileged place," said Khan. "When you are privileged enough, you don't have a second thought for the other person's struggle."

“Any violation of an individual’s conscience is unethical. The conscience of the individual must be given priority. That’s the essence of liberal democracy.” — Julius Grey, constitutional lawyer

"I can do my internship totally fine because I am not getting paid. But suddenly I want to sub, I want to teach, my hijab is an issue," Khan said.

Khan recounted multiple scenarios where she primarily led the classes, and the teacher would sit back and supervise. "You tell me, how is that fair?" said Khan. "I will take full responsibility of the entire class, and someone else will come just to sit there. And then they get paid?"

To Julius Grey, a constitutional lawyer for about five decades, the contradiction Khan describes "is classified under the rubric of idiocy." 

Idil Issa, a Muslim law student at McGill University, who founded Femmes Musulmanes du Québec, believes Khan’s situation is a prime example of "how impossible it is for Muslim women to create their careers as teachers in Quebec right now. It is just so impossible, so unfair. Even if she is super qualified, she is met with these tumbling blocks.”

Issa noted that the law creates a norm within Quebec society of who is a good citizen. "To be a good citizen, you are not allowed to publicly express your faith," she said. "It creates an environment of permissiveness. Because the government introduced Bill 21, people who may be Islamophobic, antisemitic, really have a sort of green light in order to continue with their views and goals. If there is a law that actually enshrines these values of intolerance, then individuals really feel enabled to express those Islamaphobic views because the government is really co-signing that type of view."

Bill 21 was recently challenged in the Quebec Court of Appeal, with many advocates stressing that the law is unconstitutional and infringes on section two of the Canadian Charter, which guarantees everyone's right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, expression and so on.

"Any violation of an individual's conscience is unethical," argued Grey. "The conscience of the individual must be given priority. That's the essence of liberal democracy." 

In February 2024, the court ruled Bill 21 constitutional after exploiting the notwithstanding clause, a section of the Canadian Constitution that protects legislation from most court challenges over violations of fundamental rights. 

"There is no doubt that if there was no notwithstanding clause, this would be struck down in five minutes," said Grey, one of the intervenors on behalf of the plaintiff for the recent appeal. He argued before the court that the law was unconstitutional. "What the Bill does is it says 'this law operates notwithstanding the charter,' both Quebec and Canadian charter."

Khan's colleagues who were to be interviewed for the article were not permitted to speak to The Link, nor was The Link permitted on St. Johns' premises. 

"[The school and Board] talk about all of this diversity, and they talk about all of this accountability, all of this fancy stuff that only looks good in books. But when it comes to a controversial situation like mine, then they just want to sweep it under the rug and not talk about it," Khan said. 

The Link contacted Lauzier and Riverside School Board (RSB), which administers St. Johns, to comment on the principal’s encounter with Khan and the board’s stance on equality and diversity. 

The statement received, penned by Lucie Roy, the director general of RSB, was written on behalf of the school board and Lauzier. The statement reaffirms RSB’s stance of valuing and honouring "all faces, voices, realities, and experiences, and ensure that ours is an organization where children, youth and adults are acknowledged, respected, welcomed and empowered. We commit to the ongoing work required to keep equity and inclusion at the forefront of our reflection and decision-making [...] Supporting equity, diversity and inclusion is an ongoing endeavour at Riverside." 

The statement continued highlighting that RSB is compelled to abide by Bill 21 and strives to apply the law with sensitivity and compassion. The statement concluded with the Board denying Khan's recollection of events, writing, "Conveying this information was perceived as a request to remove a religious symbol which was not the case," adding Lauzier navigated the legislation with "great care and respect."

However, according to Khan, the request to remove her hijab is far from false. She feels the denial of her claim confutes their statement. “Stop promoting diversity, because you really don’t believe in it. When somebody is speaking up for justice or against discrimination, you shut it down right there,” she said.

“I don’t have a choice but to leave Quebec. If I can’t teach. If I cannot continue to pursue my career and my goals and my passion, what am I doing here?” — Fatima Khan

March 28 marked the final day of Khan's internship and possibly the last time she would ever lead a class at St. Johns or in Quebec again. Typically, following graduation, interns are invited to teach at the schools where they worked, and if it weren't for Bill 21, Khan would continue to work with the school where she and her family had deeply rooted themselves.

"I don't have a choice but to leave Quebec," said Khan. "If I can't teach. If I cannot continue to pursue my career and my goals and my passion, what am I doing here?"

After graduation, Khan will move away from her home, siblings and parents. She has family outside of Quebec and plans to move in with them to begin teaching the subject she loves most.

Upon Khan's departure from St. Johns, she had to explain to her students why she would not be returning. Khan shared how her students were heartbroken that she wasn't able to teach because of her hijab. In her three months interning at St. Johns, Khan noted how the students really took to her.  

"You can see it in the students; if I was not a good teacher, if I was not fit for this [they would not have this reaction]. They all enjoyed having me as their teacher," Khan said.

Many of her students did research on the law because of Khan's situation.

"If I leave Quebec and I didn't speak up about this law, I would have this huge regret. I want to speak up, even if things don't change or stay the same or get worse. At least I know I did my part as a Quebec citizen, as a Canadian citizen, as a human being."

This article originally appeared in Volume 44, Issue 13, published April 2, 2024.