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'It was absolute shock, it was hard to process': Chelsea, Que. teacher banned for wearing a hijab speaks out

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The Chelsea, Que. elementary school teacher removed from the classroom for wearing a hijab says she is overwhelmed by the support from the school and the community.

"This is so heartwarming to see because it speaks to how big this is," said Fatemeh Anvari in an interview with CTV News Ottawa.

"This is not about my article of clothing. This is a bigger issue. This is something that is about humans. I don't want this to be a personal thing because that won't do any good to anyone. I want this to be something in which we all think about how big decisions affect other lives."

The Western Quebec School Board confirmed on Wednesday that the Grade 3 teacher at Chelsea Elementary School was removed from the classroom because of Bill 21, Quebec's law that bans the wearing of religious symbols by certain government employees deemed to be in positions of authority while at work.

English Quebec school boards were exempted from Bill 21 in an April court ruling. However, that exemption doesn't immediately apply, since the Quebec government challenged the ruling. A judge rejected a request from the English Montreal School Board in November for a stay, which would have allowed it to operate outside Bill 21 rules during the appeal.

"(The board) asked me if this was a religious or a cultural or what it was," said Anvari about her discussions with the Western Quebec School Board in November about wearing a hijab.

"I said, you know, for me it's more of an identity. I'm not saying it's a religious symbol because I don't believe that somebody who is not wearing a hijab is not practising Islam. I don't believe that, I think that everybody can choose to wear it or not wear it and that doesn't make anybody less practising of that religion.

"I said it's more identity and it's sort of a resistance and resilience, because it's empowering for me to wear it.  But regardless of that, I was told you know, regardless of this it still counts as a religious symbol."

Anvari has been a substitute teacher with the school board since March, and was hired for the teaching position near the end of October.

She has been offered a new position to work on literacy and diversity with children at Chelsea Elementary School.

"I also find that the new opportunity will allow me to speak with the kids about these topics, these difficult topics that are so important to be brought to their attention," said Anvari.

"At the end of the day, the goal for me is to teach and that is what I'm doing."

Some Quebec politicians suggested Anvari wore the hijab in the classroom intentionally to "make a statement."

"The reason this teacher doesn't have a job is because she didn't respect the law," said Pascal Bérubé, the Parti Québécois's critic on secularism. "The law is for everyone. She tried to make a statement wearing a hijab."

On Parliament Hill, Conservative leader Erin O'Toole said he's personally against Bill 21, but Quebec's secularism law is a provincial debate.

"I don't agree with the secular tenets of Bill 21 but it is a question for Quebec to decide and I do think we have to make sure that everyone is respectful and respected in these discussions," said O'Toole.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said the incident at the Chelsea school is "exactly why" he's opposed to the law.

In Chelsea, Que., Anvari says she hopes the discussion will lead to a change in society.

"Just hope that we can all see how much of a better world we'll all have if we're just accepting of each other and that we're free to express ourselves."

With files from CTV News Montreal's Selena Ross and CTVNews.ca producer Sarah Turnbull

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