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Racism, Religious Bias, and Quebec’s Catastrophic Teacher Shortage

Do you remember Pauline Marois? While many would like to forget her, the 30th premier of Quebec who served from 2012 to 2014 oversaw the implementation of exclusionary policies that ushered in a divisive climate that was arguably disastrous for black people and other racial minorities in the province. As the leader of the Parti Québécois, Marois’ government proposed the Charter of Quebec Values that sought to impose a supposedly universal neutrality in the public sector by banning conspicuous religious symbols. If you were unfortunate enough to immigrate to Quebec during this period, you were “welcomed” to the province with didactic visual pamphlets outlining the biased racial logic of the religious and cultural restrictions.

Fast forward to 2023 and Quebec is facing a major education crisis with a shortfall of some 8,558 teachers. So, what happened? The biased policies of the Marois government did not disappear, but instead were taken up and enshrined by the current Quebec premier François Legault. You could say that Legault finished what Marois started, to catastrophic result. Bill 21, Quebec’s secularism law, effectively bans trained teachers like Fatemeh Anvari, a former elementary school teacher in Chelsea, Quebec, from teaching if she wears a hijab in the classroom. As Anvari, a successful substitute teacher who had recently received full-time status explained to CBC News, “The school did not want me to lose the classroom but, you know, there was no way out.” Instead of a promotion, the school informed her that her contract had been terminated because of Bill 21.

The law that passed in 2019, bans teachers and other government employees from wearing religious symbols at work, symbols like hijabs, turbans, and crucifixes. But whereas a crucifix, typically worn as a necklace, can easily be disguised, and placed under someone’s shirt or dress collar, the hijab and turban as head coverings are conspicuous. As such the law has disproportionately impacted women and men of colour, particularly Muslims and Sikhs in detrimental ways. As you would expect, the fallout of the law has been far reaching and disastrous. Research reported by the CBC in 2022 revealed that, three years on, religious minorities in Quebec felt “increasingly alienated and hopeless.”  As scholar and lead investigator Miriam Taylor explained, Bill 21 was the context that allowed long-standing prejudices to become normalized.

In a classic demonstration of the inflexibility and unresponsiveness of politicians, education minister Bernard Drainville commented that, “The Law has been voted…and we don’t want to revisit this. There’s no flexibility on that.” Instead, in the face of what is for the good parents and children of Quebec, a province-wide education crisis, Drainville is rather desperately encouraging anyone with university-level training in various disciplines to “try their hands” at a new career, teaching. Come again?

If it isn’t obvious, we would like to point out that teachers excel at teaching not simply because they have discipline-specific training, but because they have studied pedagogical practice and theory and know how to communicate knowledge and translate various sources and information into teaching practices, outcomes, and resources. Teachers are not merely people who are trained in Math, English, or History. They are pedagogues.

Quebec’s long history of racial and religious exclusion (we’re talking 1760 to present long) and the enshrinement of this culture in law have also led exceptionally well-trained, talented, and hardworking teachers and other civil servants to flee the province. And of course, this provincial brain drain is being capitalized upon by other provinces who are also competing for talented civil servants. For instance, Lakeridge Health in Oshawa, Ontario produced a poster with a slogan directed at Muslim women: “We don’t care what’s on your head, we care what’s in it.” We say, Amen to that!