Fatemeh Anvari Quebec Bill 21

Fatemeh Anvari is collateral damage in the Quebec quest for homogeneity

“Fatemeh Anvari isn’t a martyr. She’s the victim of a law that does exactly what it was enacted to do: discriminate against those who are different.”

Last week, The Low Down broke the story that Grade 3 English and homeroom teacher Fatemeh Anvari in Chelsea, Quebec had been banned from teaching because she wears a hijab and instead had been shuffled into — irony of all ironies — an inclusion and diversity literacy role within the school. For clarity’s sake, the teacher is an employee of an English school board, which is challenging Bill 21 in court and until recently was exempt from the legislation. However, because the province is currently appealing that ruling, the school board must now comply with the law until it goes to court.

The pro Bill 21 crowd has been working overtime to paint the young Muslim teacher as a radical militant, a religious zealot who manufactured the crisis to make herself a martyr for the cause. It takes a lot of bad faith to believe this incident is anything more than just the sad consequence of legislation that marginalizes and penalizes public servants who wear visible religious symbols — mostly Muslim women who wear the hijab.

The grandfather clause was added to Bill 21 primarily to avoid public embarrassments like this one, which might compel some to question legislation that makes people lose their jobs. If forced homogeneity can be achieved quietly and with no visible victims, by slowly eliminating visible diversity in public spaces, it makes it more palatable to some of its supporters. 

Fatemeh’s third graders have now been deprived of their teacher (while Quebec faces teacher shortages), and a competent professional with zero complaints or questionable behaviour has seen her career sidelined. She’s been relegated to second-class citizen based solely on the hypothetical danger certain Quebecers — unable to distinguish the difference between the Muslim faith and radical Islam, or the difference between a personal expression of religious faith and proselytism — feel she may intentionally or unintentionally pose for her young students. 

Bill 21 is legislated intolerance

Quebec Bill 21
Opposition to Bill 21, which became law in June, 2019.

There is a real unwillingness in Quebec to acknowledge the dire consequences of this discriminatory legislation and the message it communicates. Back in November 2020, I wrote about Montreal North high-school teacher Vincent Ouellette, who was allowed to terrorize his students with his racism and Islamophobia for over a decade until they took action into their own hands and videotaped him repeatedly hurling the n-word, finally getting him fired. I wrote about how Ouellette’s so-called perceived neutrality (white, francophone, no religious signs) allowed a bigot to retain a job for years and years, complaint after complaint, while teachers like Fatemeh, who have done nothing wrong, are pre-emptively denied the chance to prove those suspicious of her wrong because of majority bias. 

One of the main reasons so many Quebecers are against legislation like Bill 21 is that it’s counterproductive as an integration tool (no one forced to erase part of their identity is going to feel more part of the ‘nous’) and as a prevention tool against religious extremism. It only serves to marginalize and penalize religious minorities already fully participating in our society, while emboldening bigots like Ouellette. And he’s not alone.

Discriminatory legislation emboldens racists

Provincial police are currently investigating after the carcass of an unidentified animal was left outside a mosque in Vaudreuil-Dorion over the weekend. The incident is eerily similar to a hate crime a few years back when a pig’s head was left at the doorstep of a Quebec City mosque in 2016, accompanied by a note: “Bon appétit.” Barely a year and a half after that incident, another mosque in the same city was targeted — this time with a Glock semi-automatic weapon. Six Muslim men would be shot dead by Alexandre Bissonnette who, fuelled by a constant online diet of Islamophobia, was intent on “protecting himself and his family” from an Islamic invasion. 

The line drawn in the sand between those who say they don’t want to see expressions of faith in the public service and those who grow to fear anyone who doesn’t look and act like them is often a thin one. In most cases, xenophobes and racists are unable to see that line at all. All they see in legislation that marginalizes people is a green light to do the same. It doesn’t appease “people who are a little bit racist,” like Premier Legault alluded to when he tried to justify the law, it emboldens those who hate and mistrust the “other” to be even more uninhibited with their intolerance.

A bill that discriminates against Muslim teachers or prosecutors who wear the hijab emboldens a racist to discriminate against a hijabi woman who’s a nurse, a daycare worker, a cashier. ‘If the government can discriminate against religious minorities, so can I,’ is the logical conclusion. The road from marginalizing a group in one specific area of public service, to all public spaces, and how it teaches and weaves intolerance into all facets of life, is a very short one.

Indirect discrimination is still discrimination 

François Legault media xenophobia virtue signalling censorship
Quebec Premier François Legault

Bill 21 reminds me of Canada’s Continuous Passage Act enacted in 1908. Only immigrants who had travelled directly from their home country to Canada with no stops were allowed in after that legislation passed. While not specifically mentioning race or nationality, the legislation was meant to keep out non-European nationals (non-whites, essentially) since there were no direct steamship routes from India or Japan, indirectly preventing people from those countries to emigrate here. It didn’t specifically ban people from these destinations, but it made it impossible for them to emigrate here. 

In the same way, Bill 21 purports to be legislation applied equally to all Quebecers. But if only certain religions require visible symbols as part of one’s faith, it clearly only targets and penalizes some, while requiring no concessions from the majority. It is precisely for this reason that recent judicial rulings have indicated the legislation disproportionately affects Quebec’s religious minorities, mostly Muslim women. It’s easy to say, “We’re enacting religious neutrality” when neutrality is already the status quo for the majority. Religious minorities who aspire to public service in Quebec have now been forced to deal with a manufactured ultimatum that orders them to either erase part of their identity or never aspire to certain careers. That’s not secularism, that’s selective discrimination. 

Human rights aren’t decided by popular vote

One final point. “Bill 21 enjoys popular support” is a pointless argument when it comes to human rights. Democracy is primarily about protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority. History has already shown us that popular support for something means it’s neither moral nor right, and that legislation motivated by fear is usually the worst kind of legislation. 

More than 50 years later, I don’t know of many Quebecers who would point to the War Measures Act during the October Crisis as a shining moment in Quebec’s history. Many Quebecers allude to it now as something that happened to us. We angrily point to the wrongful arrests of close to 500 civilians and Prime Minister Trudeau’s arrogance in granting the police sweeping powers to arrest and detain, allowing them to violate and limit human rights and civil liberties by denying due process to those arrested. 

And yet we have conveniently forgotten that there was widespread support for the measures at the time. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa supported the act, and so did Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau. What’s more, opinion polls in Quebec and the rest of Canada showed overwhelming support, too.

“In a December 1970 Gallup Poll, it was noted that 89% of English-speaking Canadians and 86% of French-speaking Canadians supported the introduction of the War Measures Act.” 

We often look at past government decisions or popular opinion with the benefit of hindsight and arrogantly wonder how they couldn’t see the injustice at the time, but majority bias creates major blind spots. The vast majority of Quebecers against Bill 21 are for secularism and many are atheists and have little interest in religion or its related misogyny, patriarchy and archaic ways. Opposition to this legislation isn’t motivated by a desire for more religion in the public space, but by the double standards imposed only on certain religions, essentially making it impossible not to violate religious minorities’ human rights.

Fatemeh Anvari isn’t a martyr for her “cause” or a strategically placed agent meant to “shame” Quebecers. She’s the victim of a law that does exactly what it was enacted to do: discriminate against those who are different. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.