News Agencies – November 23, 2011
At Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto, a few dozen interested parties attended a discussion on religious accommodation within the Toronto District School Board. This may have the perverse effect of reigniting a debate that had died down since the summer, when a tiny group of angry Hindus objected to Muslim prayer services being conducted on Friday afternoons in the cafeteria at Valley Park Middle School, just across the street from Garneau C.I.
Jim Spyropoulos, who is the TDSB’s coordinating superintendent, inclusive schools, student, parent and community, laid out the rationale: Students were leaving school to go to mosque on Fridays. Some weren’t making it there, and some weren’t making it back – and were a disruption to the other students if they did return. The Guidelines and Procedures for the Accommodation of Religious Requirements stipulates that “where possible, schools should allocate space for congregational prayer.”
The Toronto Star – August 8, 2011
About a hundred demonstrators congregated on the steps of the Toronto District School Board toting signs and shouting chants condemning the city’s public schools for allowing Muslim prayer groups. “No Islam in our schools! Never, never, never!” shouted Ron Banerjee, director of the Canadian Hindu Advocacy. The demonstration comes several weeks after a similar one was held at the same location with groups such as the Jewish Defense League and the Christian Heritage Party.
On the edge of the street were about a dozen young Muslims clad in colourful hijabs, carrying signs supporting the school board. The controversy over Muslim prayers in public schools was recently ignited over Valley Park Middle School’s decision to bring in an imam to provide Friday prayer service to 300 Muslim students, who were reportedly failing to return to school after leaving early to attend a mosque.
The Toronto Star – July 25, 2011
About 100 protesters, many from groups such as the Jewish Defense League, the Christian Heritage Party and Canadian Hindu Advocacy, came to the Toronto District School Board to protest its approval of formal Friday prayer services for Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School.
Previously those students had left their school to attend prayers at a nearby mosque on Fridays. Bringing an imam into the school was a means of preventing some of the approximately 300 Muslim students from failing to return to classes after those prayers, said school board director Chris Spence. It also meant they don’t have to cross a busy street. Valley Park has been holding the prayers in the cafeteria for three years and there have been no complaints within the school community of about 1,200.
Speaking to reporters inside the board office, Spence said schools have an obligation to religious accommodation. But, “accommodation is fluid. It’s not written in stone,” said Spence, who added the board is feeling its way on the difficult issue.
News Agencies – July 19, 2011
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says schools, with input from their communities, are best equipped to answer the controversial question of how to accommodate students’ religious beliefs and practices. The premier’s comments come as a handful of faith-based groups say they will picket Toronto District School Board headquarters next week. The groups, which include the Jewish Defence League of Canada, the Canadian Hindu Advocacy and the Christian Heritage Group, are upset that a middle school in the city’s north end has provided Muslim students cafeteria space for a weekly prayer service, saying the board showed favouritism to Islam.
Mr. McGuinty told reporters that “when it comes to faith matters I have faith in school boards, I have faith in schools themselves to make judgments that they think are appropriate in their particular circumstances.” The Toronto school board has defended Valley Park’s decision, noting that schools have a duty to accommodate students’ religious beliefs under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
The Globe and Mail – July 8, 2011
More than two-thirds of the population that surrounds Valley Park, in Toronto’s northeast, have arrived in the past 20 years, primarily from India, Pakistan and more recently Afghanistan – reflecting Canada’s shifting urban demographics. The school draws many of its students from Thorncliffe Park, a one-kilometre horseshoe of apartment buildings packed with 30,000 people – a neighbourhood that is known for having the highest concentration of Muslims in Canada. Now it’s becoming known for something else: It’s at the centre of a growing debate over the place of religion in the public school system.
This week, a complaint about imam-led prayer sessions at the school has made unlikely allies of diverse religious interest groups and secularists, from the Canadian Hindu Advocacy to the Muslim Canadian Congress to the Canadian Secular Alliance.
From November to March, the pupils enter the cafeteria segregated by sex, with boys at the front separated from girls at the back. The imam stands at the front with a microphone and begins with a short lesson in English, usually about the importance of discipline or mutual respect, said a parent volunteer, and then leads a prayer in Arabic. Until a week ago, Valley Park’s three-year policy of accommodating Muslim pupils who wanted to pray during school hours had caused barely a ripple. Then the Canadian Hindu Advocacy complained that it violated a policy banning religious instruction in public schools, which raised a chorus of opposition as well as support.
The Globe and Mail – July 6, 2011
The Toronto District School Board says it is meeting its obligation to accommodate students’ religious beliefs by allowing an imam to lead students in prayer on school property. The board came under fire this week when a Hindu raised objections to Friday Muslim prayer sessions, which have been held inside a cafeteria at Valley Park Middle School in Flemingdon Park for about three years. The Muslim Canadian Congress also raised concerns that the TDSB is putting the needs of Muslim students above their classmates.
Jim Spyropoulos, superintendent of inclusive schools for the board, said that parents and teachers at the school came up with an arrangement that would enable the more than 300 observant students at the school to attend prayer without leaving school property and missing class time. A spokeswoman for the board said the prayers are entirely run and paid for by the Valley Park community.
“In a school where there is such a high concentration of Muslim students, this was the best solution that avoided compromising instructional time,” said Mr. Spyropoulos.