This advocate and law student is making space for the voices of marginalized Quebecers

CBC Quebec is highlighting people from the province’s Black communities who are giving back, inspiring others and helping to shape our future. These are the 2023 Black Changemakers.

Idil Issa fights for the causes that she believes in and works to help others get their voices heard, too.

The McGill University law student has spent more than five years lobbying for human rights in Quebec, particularly voicing her opposition to restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols.

Issa, who grew up in Winnipeg and Toronto, first came to Montreal for university. After doing international communications work for a decade, she returned in 2016, just as the province was debating whether to bar those who wear face coverings from receiving certain public services.

“There’s so many religious minorities in Quebec and so many young people who are kind of growing up in this context where their existence in societies is being openly debated,” said Issa.

“There’s so many other things to work on and fix in society, and we’re just stuck on these issues.”

Issa began speaking to the media and writing opinion pieces. As a Muslim woman who sometimes covers her hair, she was worried what could come next.

So when in 2019 the Quebec government went further — banning the wearing of hijabs by public servants in positions of authority, including teachers — Issa drew on her network of other Muslim women and allies who shared their views.

Through a group she founded, Femmes musulmanes contre le racism et l’islamophobia (FEMCOR), Issa encouraged others to go public with their experiences as Muslim women in Quebec.

“That was really important for me,” she says, “to help Muslim women who were affected by the bill to represent themselves and to come into their power and to really take their place.”

Two women, one putting her hands on the other's shoulder.
Idil Issa, right, is seen with advocate and lawyer Tamara Thermitus. (Submitted by Idil Issa)

FEMCOR is more than an online forum, says member Marie-Claude Haince. It’s an organizing tool and a rare virtual space for Muslims of different races, cultures and mother tongues to communicate with one another.

“There’s no other space that can bring Muslim women together: francophone, anglophone, convert,” says Haince, a researcher at Université de Montréal who met Issa at the province’s hearings on systemic racism.

“Idil was speaking up for us, but she also wanted many voices to be heard, not just hers.”

Fighting Bill 21 on many fronts

Issa’s opposition to Bill 21 is what prompted her, in part, to seek a political office.

She co-founded the municipal party Mouvement Montréal, which seeks more autonomy for the metropolis, and runs for a downtown city council seat in 2021.

While the party won no seats in its first campaign, he said it was a good learning experience. And she thinks just having her face on campaign posters downtown showing Montrealers of colors that there is a place for themselves as political leaders.

While she hasn’t been ruled out running again, for now she is focused on finishing the law school.

With challenges to Bill 21 still before the courts, becoming a lawyer is the latest front on which she’s battling the secularism law.

“I was pretty effective as an advocate, but I felt like I needed a sharper tool,” she said. “The law was really a good tool for me to have.”

The Black Changemakers is a special series recognizing individuals who, regardless of background or industry, are driven to create a positive impact in their community. From tackling problems to showing small gestures of kindness on a daily basis, these changemakers are making a difference and inspiring others. Meet all the change makers here.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canadaa CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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