CBC News · Posted: Jan 26, 2023
Six years ago, a school board west of Toronto was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Security had to be stepped up after racist outbursts at board meetings, a man was filmed tearing pages out of a Qur'an during discussions about religious accommodations, and Muslim students were told they would have to choose from sermons approved by the board for their Friday prayers.
Today, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) is the first in Canada to adopt a strategy aimed at dismantling Islamophobia and affirming the identity of Muslims students, who comprise the largest reported faith-based identity at the board — about a quarter of its student population.
And the timing isn't without significance, said the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
"The PDSB has set a tremendous example with this anti-Islamophobia strategy that other school boards across the country would be wise to study, examine and follow," the council's education director, Aasiyah Khan, said in a news release.
'Historic step forward'
"It's really fitting that this announcement is being made in the lead-up to the sixth anniversary of the Quebec City shooting, which really changed this country," she added. "This is a historic step forward."
The announcement comes after a 2020 review by Ontario's Ministry of Education found anti-Black racism to be a significant challenge at the board. The board also noted "blatantly Islamophobic resources and teaching materials" had been used in classrooms, affecting the well-being of Muslim students and staff, in a report dated Wednesday.
The anti-Islamophobia strategy sprang from a motion put forth by former PDSB trustee Nokha Dakroub in September 2021 that proposed, in part, anti-Islamophobia training for all board staff members.
The strategy relies largely on the definition of Islamophobia created by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, namely: "stereotypes, bias or acts of hostility towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general. In addition to individual acts of intolerance and racial profiling, Islamophobia leads to viewing Muslims as a greater security threat on an institutional, systemic and societal level."
"These systemic attitudes foster an unwarranted culture of suspicion and surveillance of Muslims and the Muslim community," the board says, pointing to the example of a cash reward being offered to surveil Muslim students at Friday prayers in schools.
Strategy outlines 6 key pillars
The board's plan also notes Islamophobia often intersects with other forms of oppression including racism, such as anti-Black and anti-Palestinian racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ hate and systemic oppression.
The strategy, developed with input from the NCCM, the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, lists six key pillars for the board to work on:
- Building capacity to implement the strategy.
- Affirming and celebrating Muslim identities, including using resources that acknowledge Muslim contributions across subjects like math, science, history and the arts to "counter the erasure of Muslim identity in the historically Eurocentric curriculum."
- Creating learning and working environments to intentionally disrupt Islamophobia, including annual mandatory anti-Islamophobia training for staff and establishing prayer or contemplation spaces for staff or student use.
- Foster meaningful engagement with Muslim communities, including partnerships with community agencies and ensuring culturally appropriate referrals to services.
- Supporting the mental health and well-being of Muslim students and staff, such as by recognizing Muslim beliefs and practices can differ between individuals and groups and creating "safe spaces" for groups such as Muslim Students Associations.
- Implementing responsive hiring and supportive measures, including supporting the advancement of racialized employees into leadership roles.
'Calls almost every day' over Islamophobia in schools
In a news release, Khan added anti-Muslim hate is an issue that endures in schools even today.
"We've gotten calls almost every day for the last few weeks about horrific issues relating to Islamophobia in our schools, some violent, and some systemic."
Samya Hasan, executive director of the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians, experienced that kind of anti-Muslim discrimination firsthand as a student and said it can lead to Muslim youth questioning their identity having low self-esteem.
"We've heard from hundreds of youth, and their parents, about stories of things like being called a terrorist, or girls, having their hijabs pulled off from their heads, or being dismissed by teachers in the school system ... And not to speak of tons of microaggressions that happen on an everyday basis."
That, in part, is why the strategy also commits to collecting data to measure its success.
Those metrics will measure the percentage of Muslim students who feel their school is a safe and inclusive environment, for example, as well as the number of human rights complaints made to the board's human rights office, hate incidents and Muslim staff members' well-being.
"The development of a strategy to affirm Muslim identities and dismantle Islamophobia is only the first step in an ongoing journey," the board said in its strategy document.
"Fostering an environment that is free from Islamophobia will require the efforts of all members of the PDSB community to meaningfully engage in this important work"
News of the strategy comes as Canada marked another first.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment of Amira Elghawaby as Canada's first special representative on combating Islamophobia. Elghawaby will advise the federal government on how to better fight discrimination against the Muslim community.