The great thinker Albert Einstein once said that “we must not only learn to tolerate our differences, we must welcome them as the richness and diversity which can lead to true intelligence”. We have been challenged to reflect on the depth of our national intellect, as we learned that a Muslim classroom teacher was reassigned because she chose to wear a hijab in her workplace. That workplace, a school, is among those spaces prohibiting public servants in the province from wearing any type of religious symbolism, in the name of secularism.
“What we say with this law is that people, in public areas, can wear what they want, whatever religious sign they want”, said Quebec’s premier about Bill 21, adding that the law was very “moderate”. I would suggest to Mr. Legault that there is no space more public than school. It is in our schools, that the foundational beliefs, attitudes and identities of our populations are formed.
We are not a homogenous society. We do not share in the same religious beliefs, cultures, or language. We are not a country or people of singularities. We are a mosaic of communities buoyed by our differences and where, if we let them, those difference serve as gift that can enhance our prosperity as a species. No law ever will change that. Limitations on our diversity such as Bill 21 however, prevent us from reaching the greatest positive outcomes borne by those differences.
In my first year as a teacher, I received a gift from a parent in the form of a fridge magnet which bore the words of Mayo Angelou, who said that “your students will never remember most of what you taught them, but they will always remember the way you made them feel”. I am reflecting deeply about that in light of what is happening in Quebec.
I paused for a long while to think about the way this law might make students feel. Seeking answers, I took time to sit down with a young learner at my school, who proudly wears her hijab as a symbol of her faith, but not, as she would want me to emphasize, as a symbol of who she is in her entirety, nor as something that is forced upon her. We talked for a while about her place in the world, and how the Quebec teacher’s story left her feeling. She could not understand why such a law was necessary, nor how it helped to make life better. Her insights reminded me that our kids are always looking to us to make sense of the world.
The conversation with that student got me thinking about the types of questions young people may be asking themselves as they become aware of this story. Where might I gain the confidence and fearlessness needed to be proud of who I am, when my leaders are not permitted the ability to express themselves authentically? How might my classmates learn more about me, and I about them, if we are made to feel as though our differences are hidden from us, or so strongly opposed that they are banned from school itself?
Students, their families, and the community as a whole must be able to see themselves reflected in schools. Symbols provide us with powerful opportunities to engage in meaningful discourse and learn from each other. They are physical reminders of our place in the world. A child’s innocent curiosity about their teacher’s culture for example, could spark a wonderful set of lessons and experiences that will open their minds to the richness of human diversity. Students who see themselves in their teachers are likely to be instilled with a sense of belonging and pride. Is this not what we want in our schools? What do we have to fear? By forcing symbols of faith and identity into the shadows, we are sending a powerful message to our kids. That message, which we can be assured they will hear, tells them that the place they should feel safest, most wanted, and inspired to be themselves, is the same place where their role models and leaders are prevented from experiencing the same. This perpetuates prejudice, it does not help to cure it.
By denying teachers the right to be who they are in schools, Bill 21 propagates those views about otherness that we so desperately want our children to live without. Furthermore, Bill 21 forces young people to look at the issue through a political lens, as opposed to one that focuses on the underlying good of humanity at the heart of who we are.
In a world where divisiveness, fractions, and hostility are dominating the way in which we live among each other, our governments should be focused on finding ways to celebrate our differences as means to unify, not politically motivated ideologies that stand in the way of it. Bill 21 is not only harmful to the quality of education that the Quebec system will be capable of providing to its children, but it sits counter to the very identity that I believe, and hope, most Canadians hold dearest.
Ben Carr is the principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg