Recently, this issue has caused a lot of controversy and several different religious groups (the Jewish Defence League of Canada, Canadian Hindu Advocacy and several Christian groups) announced their plans to protest at the TDSB headquarters demanding that the Friday prayers at Valley Park come to an immediate end. After researching I have come to the conclusion that some of the reasons that these groups want the Friday prayers to come to a halt at the school is because they believe that the prayers are an act of extremism and also showcases gender inequality (girls have to pray behind boys and those girls who are menstruating have to sit at the back apart from the rest).
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom clearly states in sections two of the fundamental freedoms: “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion.” Thus, people have the freedom to practise their religion and so this issue doesn’t have to become a controversy because people already have this freedom. Accommodation it seems has become the new tolerance. I believe this issue is more related to islamophobia, it has become a controversy simply because when we fear something we tend to pick at it in every way. When we have a fear of something we try to justify the reasons we are against it and one of the main elements that people tend to pick on in Islam are gender issues. I think it’s time we at least make an attempt to understand other people’s religions, values and their way of life. Is it possible for ignorance to become something of the past? I think most importantly we need to forgo the colonizer mentality believing that our way is the best way and rather try to understand other people. Hence, those Muslims girls who people might think are forced to pray behind boys because of gender inequality do not need saving. I know, I’m a Muslim girl. I believe it’s simply time that we stop assuming things about people and take the time to research and learn about their way of life, this should be an obligatory because we live in such a diverse society. We should really try not to solely judge on what we see and rather try to decipher the reasons why certain things are taking place the way that they are.
Moreover, in the teacher training programs these days for future teachers, they are being taught about the importance of multiculturalism and the implementation of an inclusive education. Allowing these Muslim students to congregate and partake in the Friday prayers is showing inclusiveness at all levels because they are being included and not left out. I also remember colouring a Turkey for Thanksgiving, which was once considered a Christian Holiday, I also remember every year in my elementary classroom there used to be a little Christmas tree and I also remember singing jingle bells. Couldn’t this also be considered extreme practises in some people’s perspective? Couldn’t it also be considered subtle systematic implementation of specific ideologies? So if we can have all of those little practises then why can’t Muslim students, those who wish to engage in prayer at their schools be allowed to do so? Is it really an act of extremism? The Charter grants them this right and this is an excellent example of inclusive education.
The TDSB on Friday July 8 2011 came out with a statement explaining their decision on the above mentioned ‘controversy’, it is pasted below but also can be found on the TDSB website.
Director statement re Religious accommodation for Muslim prayer service at a TDSB school
Toronto, ON, Friday, July 8, 2011 — There has been a great deal written in the past week about the religious accommodation for Muslim prayers that takes place at Valley Park Middle School from November to May.
There are very many viewpoints that have been expressed concerning this subject. I wish to make the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) position on this issue clear.
While the TDSB is part of a secular public school system, like other school boards, we exist within a broader context of law and public policy that protects and defends human rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of religion. The Ontario Human Rights Code protects an individual’s freedom from discriminatory or harassing behaviour based on religion. The Toronto District School Board recognizes and is committed to the values of freedom of religion and freedom from discriminatory or harassing behaviour based on religion through our Equity Foundation Statement, Guidelines and Procedures for the Accommodation of Religious Requirements, Practices and Observances, the Human Rights Policy and Procedures, and the Safe Schools Policy.
The Toronto District School Board takes reasonable steps to provide accommodation to members of religious groups who state that the Board’s operations or requirements interfere with their ability to exercise their religious beliefs and practices. The Board balances its decision to accommodate on several factors such as undue hardship, including: the cost of accommodation to the Board; health and safety risks to the person requesting accommodation and to others; and the Board’s ability to fulfill its duties under Board policies and the Education Act.
Where religious accommodation is concerned, the law is quite clear: freedom of religion in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms supersedes the Education Act. As a public school board, we have a responsibility and an obligation to accommodate faith needs.
Here are some facts regarding the law:
1. Indoctrinating religious instruction is prohibited in public boards.
2. Non-indoctrinating instruction about religion is allowed.
3. Scriptural readings from a variety of religions and beliefs, and moments of silence, are permitted during opening or closing exercises.
One of our primary goals is always to maximize instructional time for our students. We do this entirely within the context of instruction rather than indoctrination in any religion. In this way, we strive to achieve the respectful separation of religious devotion and education within our public schools. That is our legal and moral duty.
In the case of Valley Park, the school is not teaching the “religious practice.” Rather it is accommodating for the religious and spiritual needs of the students like many other schools do around the country for a number of different faith communities. Providing this religious accommodation does not violate any Board policies since the service is not a Board or school activity.
There have been concerns expressed that the practice of Islam separates individuals by gender. We do not have the authority to tell faith groups how to pray. The division of the sexes which occurs during the service is a part of the Islamic faith. Students who participate in the prayer services do so voluntarily and with parental permission, and no one is obligated to participate.
We understand that this is a very sensitive issue for many, and that there will continue to be differing opinions among members of our communities. However, we believe it is the willingness to have courageous conversations like these that has made Canada the diverse yet cohesive society that comes together in Toronto District School Board’s classrooms every day.