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Schools in Canada's Ontario must respect religious needs: Commissioner

Ontario Human Rights Commission statement comes after Toronto-area school board meeting where parents ripped Quran to shreds
Religious accommodation has been carried out for years in schools across Ontario (Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada – The province’s human rights commissioner has said that Ontario schools have a duty to accommodate religious beliefs, a reminder that comes after a Quran was torn up at an out-of-control Toronto-area school board meeting.

Organisations, including schools, “have a duty to maintain environments free from discrimination and harassment based on creed,” the Ontario Human Rights Commission said in a statement.

It goes on to say that school boards, administrators, and teachers should try to accommodate students and staff that observe specific prayer time.

Accommodations in that case may include “designating private areas or a room for prayer observances” and providing access to specific bathrooms for washing before prayers, or allocating enough time for students and staff to observe the Sabbath.

Only undue hardship – in the form of cost, and health and safety requirements – would make accommodation impossible, the Commission stated.

Another example could be a high school permitting “the use of a designated private space to accommodate the weekly Friday congregational prayer observances of its large Muslim student population”.

While not explicitly linked, the statement follows an incident at a 22 March Peel District School Board meeting in Mississauga, Ontario, just west of Toronto.

A group of parents and protesters attended the meeting, where they shouted Islamophobic comments and called on the school board to discontinue its accommodation of Jummah, Islamic Friday afternoon prayers.

The angry parents have argued that they don’t want any religion in schools, but many of them shouted Islamophobic, discriminatory and anti-Muslim comments at the meeting. One man ripped a Quran to pieces and stomped on its pages.

Over the last two decades Muslim students, in schools across the Region of Peel, have been accommodated for Friday prayer. This is not something new

- Linda Jeffrey, Mayor of Brampton

Shaykh Omar Subedar said on Facebook that the school board contacted local imams about what to do with the shredded Quran.

“I have it with me now and will be burying it shortly Inshā'Allāh [God Willing],” he wrote. “May Allah [God] open the hearts and eyes of those who have blinded themselves with hate.”

Religious accommodation has been carried out for years in schools across Ontario, as mandated by the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“Over the last two decades Muslim students, in schools across the Region of Peel, have been accommodated for Friday prayer. This is not something new,” said Linda Jeffrey, the mayor of Brampton, Ontario, another nearby city.

“I am troubled by the misinformation, fear mongering, and outright falsehoods being spread by some,” she said in a statement.

Indeed, the debate over religious accommodation comes amid an increasingly hostile debate over Islamophobia in Canada that was tied to a recent parliamentary motion, M-103, that would study systemic racism and track hate crimes.

Protests against the motion, which passed last month, have been held in major cities across Canada and were attended by members of several far-right hate groups, including the Soldiers of Odin and the Jewish Defence League.

Anti-fascist activists have mobilised against the protests, and often outnumber the anti-M-103 protesters by a large margin.

Meanwhile, an anti-Muslim commentator with right-wing website FreedomReport.ca offered a $1,000 cash reward for anyone who would film Muslim students praying.

“This is hate-filled showmanship by someone who wants attention for an ongoing attack on valued members of our school community,” the school board said in a statement that explained filming Friday prayers would violate privacy laws.

“It is a campaign that encourages hatred, and makes our students, staff and community feel unsafe and targeted. That is simply wrong.”