In the first weeks of the school year, the province’s new ban on religious symbols is not only impacting practising public employees, but also student teachers — who technically aren’t covered by the ban.
The secularism law, which prohibits public servants including prosecutors, police officers and teachers from wearing religious symbols at work, passed in June.
One French-language school board, the Commission scolaire de la Pointe-de-l’Île (CSPI), intends to refuse to take on student teachers who wear religious symbols.
“It’s not a question of discrimination,” said CSPI president Miville Boudreault.
Since student teachers enter schools as part of their university degrees and are unpaid, they are not technically employed by the school board. That means student teachers who wear religious symbols are legally allowed to work in schools.
Boudreault said the CSPI wants to take on student teachers who can be hired after their time in co-op is over, especially since the public-education sector is facing a labour shortage.
“Our needs, in terms of teaching employees, are so large that we don’t have the luxury to lose anyone,” Boudreault said.
“So, if we have the choice between taking on a student teacher who wears a religious symbol and someone who does not, we will choose the person who does not wear one, because we would have the possibility to hire them afterward.”
Law ‘deeply troubling’ for students: McGill education prof
Even though it doesn’t affect them directly until they enter the official hiring process, the impacts of the law are being felt by student teachers, said Lisa Starr, the director of internships and student affairs for the McGill University faculty of education.
“I think it’s deeply troubling for them,” said Starr. “We’re talking about young people who’ve made a very conscious decision to become a teacher and contribute to education.”
She said it’s disheartening for those students to learn their passion and expertise is being undervalued because of a religious choice that doesn’t impact their ability to teach.
Starr says under the new law, students who wear religious symbols are entering a climate of uncertainty.
“We’ve been in contact with our colleagues at Bishop’s and Concordia,” Starr said. “Many of us are grappling with … how this is going to impact our student teachers.”
She said the situation is raising students’ anxiety levels
At least two McGill students who wear religious symbols asked to be placed in a private school, where the law does not apply, for their co-op placement, Starr said.
The university is also informing students that they can apply for certification in other provinces with their Quebec degree. But often, that’s not what students want, Starr said.
“[Education students] came to do it here and to give back, and many of them have family connections and roots here, and so now they’re questioning their choice,” she said.
‘Respect the law, but don’t go further’: Education minister
Education Minister Jean-François Roberge says it’s not up to school boards to interpret the law.
“You have to respect the law, but not go further,” he told Radio-Canada. “I invite all school administrations to understand the law properly. We drew the line; they must not cross it.”
Other school boards, such as Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) and the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), say they will continue to take on student teachers who wear religious symbols.
Carol Heffernan, assistant director general at LBPSB, says the board is hoping the law will be overturned. But in the meantime, it won’t be able to hire teachers who wear a religious symbol.
“The student teacher, if suitable, would be offered the job, but we’d have to let them know Bill 21 is a law that we have to follow in the province of Quebec, similar to other laws,” Heffernan said.
She says the law goes against the board’s ethos.
“We have a lack of teachers in the province; we have people who are educated who have so much to contribute,” she said.
“It’s the teacher’s mind we care about, not what they’re wearing on their head.”