The Education Undergraduate Society of McGill (EdUS) and the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) held a General Assembly (GA) on Jan. 10 where they condemned Bill 21. During the GA, students in the Faculty of Education voted on the possibility of striking for two days on Jan. 17 and Jan. 20. Although most of the 89 Education students in attendance voted to strike, a quorum of 118 people was required for the strike to pass. However, there will be another opportunity to vote for a strike during the week of Jan. 20.
Bill 21, which was introduced by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government in 2019, bans certain public employees in teaching, healthcare, and other sectors from wearing visible religious symbols at work. The bill passed in June 2019, drawing concerns that it violates individuals’ religious freedoms and right to expression.
The bill includes a grandfather clause that allows current public workers who have worn religious symbols to keep their position. However, as GA organizer and Vice-President (VP) External of EdUS Tatum Arcon explained, these workers still face professional obstacles posed by the law.
“If you’re a teacher, you can never be promoted,” Arcon said. “You can’t get your master’s [degree] and get higher pay or anything like that. You’ll stay at the exact same point [….] If you ever want to become principal of your school, that won’t be possible.”
EdUS President Fanny Langin discussed the difficulties faced by Education students wearing religious symbols when applying for internships following the passage of Bill 21.
“There’s nothing about [student teachers] in the law, so you’re supposed to be able to get your field experience, even if you’re wearing a religious [symbol],” Langin said. “But some school boards said they wouldn’t accept student teachers wearing a religious [symbol].”
Although Bill 21 affects religious freedoms, the law invokes Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This notwithstanding clause allows a government to temporarily protect a law against being struck down by the supreme court for violating certain Charter Rights. At the GA, community activist and Board of Governors member Ehab Lotayef argued that the usage of the notwithstanding clause in the case of Bill 21 sets a dangerous precedent.
“Who knows what other items of the Canadian Charter will be overwritten by a law, tomorrow or next year or [under] a future government?” Lotayef said. “That’s what makes this battle really important. It is not only about a kippah or a headscarf or a turban. We cannot accept or take it lying down that one individual is denied a job because [they] decide to abide by what they believe in.”
Guest speaker Jason Lister, an Education course lecturer, pointed out the unequal consequences shouldered by different groups due to Bill 21.
“Quite frankly, it’s white people being scared of brown people,” Lister said. “There’s this idea somehow that if someone is wearing a hijab while teaching, they will end up converting people to Islam […] which is of course an absolutely absurd notion [….] And I can’t speak for the other professions affected for this bill, but I do believe [that] for the teaching profession, this law targets Muslim women. It’s absolutely discriminatory.”
SSMU VP External Adam Gwiazda-Amsel, who was involved in organizing the event, expressed his frustrations with the CAQ’s poor leadership.
“I think that what frustrates me the most is that the government knows better,” Gwiazda-Amsel said. “The people who are in these government positions, premiers, and members of parliament, take trips around the world. They’re well-educated people who don’t just live in small communities in rural Quebec that are afraid of immigration they don’t understand […] For them to be fearmongering and taking advantage of the sorts of insecurities that exist in rural Quebec shows a decided lack of leadership. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Although the GA failed to reach quorum, the online vote will allow Education students another opportunity to consider striking. SSMU and EdUS will be holding a demonstration against Bill 21 on Jan. 17 at 12 p.m. on McTavish street.