On Quebec’s Bill 21June 24, 2019
I am writing to express my admiration for Ichrak Nourel Hak, the courageous young Quebec woman who is challenging the province’s Bill 21. The new law makes it unlawful for a person to work for the provincial government, including schools, while wearing “any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewellery, an adornment, an accessory, or headwear that (i) is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or (2) is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.” Ms. Nourel Hak is training to be a teacher, and she believes that she must wear a hijab in order to properly respect her religion and customs. She does not see why she should have to choose between her religious / cultural identity on the one hand, and her passion to educate children of all religions and cultures, on the other.
This matter affects not only Ms. Nourel Hak, but also every other person, regardless of faith, who feels the need to adopt some manner of dress or to wear some symbol in order to properly honour their culture or their God. Let me explain how it affects me, even though (to state the obvious), I am neither Muslim, nor female, nor a resident of Quebec.
(The Tober family in Russia, circa 1910. My grandmother is the girl on the left. Her eldest sister, on the right, had already crossed the Atlantic, so she was added to the grouping by gluing a separate photo on top of the image of the rest of the family.)
On my mother’s side, I am the descendent of Russian Jews. One of the most precious artifacts of this side of my family is a photograph taken in Bialystok, in what was then the western part of the Russian Empire, about 110 years ago. This picture hangs on my living room wall. In the photo, my great-grandfather, wears a kippa, and my great-grandmother wears the wig that was mandatory for married Jewish women. With them are six of their seven children. One of the girls, who is about nine or ten years old, is my grandmother. One of the boys is Philip, who was destined to become a rabbi. He would eventually move to New York City, where he is buried. But today, the rest of my grandmother’s family lies in Montreal, in the large Jewish cemetery on Rue de la Savanne, just east of the Decarie Underpass. My grandfather’s family, who were Romanian Jews, are buried in the same place.
In 1914, just weeks before the outbreak of World War I, my great-grandfather fled Russia along with all his children (other than his eldest daughter, who had already departed for the New World). They arrived in Montreal, and with the exception of Philip, the future rabbi, they spent the rest of their lives there—seventy years, in the case of my grandmother, who passed away in 1983. They were law-abiding, productive members of Quebec society.
My great-grandfather remained religiously observant throughout his life, always wearing his kippa. The importance he placed on this act of piety may be measured by the fact that in 1938, when he was able to make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he brought back a velvet child’s kippa, with the word “Jerusalem” sewn into it, in gold-coloured thread. This kippa is the only item belonging to my great-grandfather that I have in my possession. When I went to Jerusalem myself, many years later, it was this kippa that I wore to visit the Western Wall.
My great-grandfather never worked for the provincial government. Nor did any of his children. But his granddaughter—my mother—became a primary school-teacher in Montreal at the age of nineteen, and was still a teacher (in Gatineau) when I was born. It disturbs me that if she had chosen to wear a Star of David on a chain, she would, under the terms of Bill 21, have been prohibited from seeking that job. No male member of my family sought employment as a teacher, but it disturbs me to think that if any of their descendants were now to do so, they might be forced to make a choice between seeking such employment, and honouring their religion and heritage.
I believe that my great-grandfather would have said that it is never an act of disrespect towards the state, or towards the rest of society, to fully embrace your own heritage or to honour God. When he went to Jerusalem, he said a prayer at the Western Wall for the recently-deceased King George V. He explained in a letter that the late king had been the sovereign when he had arrived in Canada in 1914, and that he therefore regarded the king as a father. Through this act, he simultaneously reaffirmed his own faith, and did honour to the state that had given him refuge. I do not doubt that Ms. Nourel Hak has much the same motivation, and that she sees no contradiction between being an observant Muslim and being a model citizen and teacher.
It is a custom that when Jews visit a cemetery, they leave small stones at the graves they have visited. This summer, my mother and I will go to Montreal, as we try to do every summer, to lay stones at the memorials to my grandparents and great-grandparents. It is inappropriate for a Jew to have his head uncovered in such a space, and so I will wear a kippa. Perhaps it will be the kippa that my great-grandfather brought back with him from Jerusalem. I have a large head and it doesn’t fit well, but I’ve worn it before, and kippas come equipped with a little hair-clip to hold them in place.
Under such circumstances, how can I claim that I am properly honouring the memory of my ancestors, if I fail to speak out against the law that would have stripped them of their religious rights? I believe, as I think my ancestors would have believed, that such a law is out of place in a city as open as Montreal, and in a society as civilized and welcoming as Quebec and Canada.
Ms. Nourel Hak is being assisted in her court case by the National Council of Canadian Muslims. I am far from qualified to comment on the legal merits of the case that the lawyers have filed on behalf of Ms Nourel Hak and the NCCM. But I know that for myself, I am grateful that the NCCM is taking up this fight. They are speaking out not merely for the rights of Muslim Quebecers, but also for people of every other faith who believe themselves to have a moral obligation, as it were, to wear their faith on their sleeves, and who do not deserve to become second-class citizens.
If the whole messy Bill 21 episode has a silver lining, it will be this: These actions demonstrate just how completely Muslim Canadians are now a part of this country’s mainstream, and how Muslim Canadians have moved into the vanguard in protecting the rights of believers of all faiths. They are, therefore, proving the absurdity of the whole premise behind Bill 21. For this, Canadians of all faiths owe Ms. Nourel Hak and the National Council of Canadian Muslims a great deal of thanks.
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