November 8, 2004

Prominent Canadian muslim, minority and civil rights groups today called on the Quebec Human Rights Commission to immediately issue a policy statement regarding the right of Muslim students to wear the hijab, islamic headscarf, in quebec’s private schools.

At a press conference today in Montreal, the Muslim Council of Montreal, the Alliance of South Asian Communities, the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations (Canada Chapter) and CRARR deplored the Commission's recent stance of not taking a position on this issue as as timid, conservative and counterproductive. According to these groups, the Commission missed a golden opportunity to take a clear public stand for religious freedom and minority rights.

This week, the Commission announced that a private, confidential settlement had been reached between the Collège Charlemagne, a local French-language private school and Ms. Irene Waseem, a Muslim student who was expelled more than a year ago for wearing a hijab at school, and that the Commission has closed the case.

At the time of the incident, the Commission publicly stated that due to its position on religious headgear in public schools, adopted in the mid-1990s, the complaint would be investigated and resolved “within a matter of weeks”. Yet it took the Commission over 12 months to reach a settlement between two parties.

The groups recognize the absolute right of complainants before the human rights commission to reach a confidential settlement with the respondents. However, they deplore the fact that the broader issue of whether it is legal for private schools to disregard the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and ban the hijab and religious expressions remains unresolved and unanswered.

Noting that among the Commissioners, who are all appointed by the National Assembly, there is no one of Muslim or Jewish faith, Mr. Salam Elmenyawi, Chair of the Muslim Council of Montreal stated: “The Commission obviously has to address religious diversity issues and carry out its mandate fairly. We need a Commission that stands up for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities whom it is supposed to protect.”

According to Mr. Riad Saloojee, Executive Director of CAIR-CAN, “The Commission owes all Muslims and other faith communities in Quebec a clear answer to this question: Does the Charter allow private schools to ban the hijab and other religious expressions? Surely it shouldn't take months or years to say yes or no.”

For Mr. Bashir Hussain, Director of the Alliance of South Asian Communities and President of the Ismalic Center of West Island, “the Human Rights Commission has let many people down with this reactive, passive wait-and-see approach.”

“The Commission must be more pro-active in fighting preventing discrimination and it must be more present within the growing South Asian communities of Montreal, because we have people from different faiths who experience both racial and religious discrimination,” he added.

As for Fo Niemi, Executive Director of CRARR, “A specific case of discrimination can be legally settled between the parties, but the general situation giving rise to this civil rights violation cannot be left untouched.”

“If the Commission takes a strong public stand on religious freedom and the institutions' duty to respect and accommodate religious diversity, it can enlighten people, reduce social tensions and prevent discrimination more effectively. Human rights commissions are not there just to receive and investigate complaints; they also have the mandate to do human rights education,” he added.

To improve the situation, Mr. Niemi proposed the following measures:

* Holding a Commission-sponsored consultation with leaders of religious minorities of montreal to determine their concerns and expectations on freedom of religion and equality rights (immediate);
* Appointing individuals who reflect today's Quebec society, especially members of faith communities, to the Commission (before the Holiday Season);
* Asking the assembly of commissioners, as an act of individual and collective accountability, to take a public and detailed position on private schools' duties under the Charter on matters of religious and cultural diversity (before March 21, 2005) and
* Holding an annual public forum between members of racial, ethnocultural and religious minorities and commission members and staff, to discuss actions against racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, xenophobia and intolerance.

Information: Salam Elmenyawi, Muslim Council of Montreal: (514) 748-8427
Fo Niemi, CRARR: (514) 939-3342