A Toronto-area school board says it “cannot continue” to engage with the public on the subject of religious accommodation, following a board meeting that devolved into what a spokesperson described as “clear hate speech” and included someone ripping up the Quran.
A group of enraged parents behind a months-long campaign to end the accommodation of Jummah — a congregational Muslim prayer held on Friday afternoons — were cleared out of the Peel Region District School Board meeting, in Mississauga, on Thursday.
A police and security presence was heavy from the start of the meeting, which quickly went off the rails, after the board announced they wouldn’t respond to a petition demanding the end of the accommodation, which has gathered 600 signatures, until their next meeting.
As one trustee attempted to discuss retirements, a parent sitting in the front row began making retching noises. Others, already riled up because the start of the event was delayed, followed, screaming that they were being disrespected as taxpayers.
Ron Banerjee, head of the hardline anti-Muslim group Canadian Hindu Advocacy, was in the crowd, as were tens of his supporters, mostly South Asian and white parents.
“Have you read this book?” screamed one woman, holding up a copy of what appeared to be the Quran. “You would be shocked. Read it, so you know what’s happening.”
“We don’t want religion in schools,” bellowed another woman. “Leave our kids alone.” In response to one parent who attempted to shout down those in the room who were “spewing hate,” she said she didn’t hate anyone and was opposed to the presence of any religion in schools.
But when a man sitting a few rows above her said “People died today because of that book,” invoking the London terrorist attack on Wednesday — which left three people dead and for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility — she joined him, yelling, “You guys killed four people today.”
One man ripped up a copy of the Quran and threw its pages towards the front of the room, and another person walked on the pages. They remained scattered all over the floor for the remainder of the meeting.
For several minutes, the trustees waited for the crowd to settle down, but parents, who were warned that they would be kicked out if they continued to disrupt the meeting, would not relent, prompting the board to pack up their things and file out of the room. As they walked out, a group of parents started singing the national anthem.
Board chair Janet MacDougald said the board was “appalled as a Board by the anti-Muslim rhetoric and prejudice we have seen on social media, read in emails, and heard first-hand at our board meetings.”
“It has caused some of our students to feel unsafe, to feel targeted. We must not allow hatred toward any faith group to flourish,” she said. “We will not stand for that.”
Jummah prayers have been been accommodated in Peel schools for two decades without issue, as required by the Ontario Human Rights Code, which states that only cost or health and safety risks should prevent religious accommodations from being granted.
The accommodation only became an issue after a policy introduced by the board in 2016, requiring students to read only from sermons approved by the board, was overturned following backlash from members of the Muslim community.
The school board issued a fact sheet on Wednesday in response to “misinformation and errors that have been shared in the community and on social media,” in which they explained that Friday prayer has no impact on other students, as they “try to find a time when students are already out of class—lunch for example—or if in class, 15 minutes at the start or finish of the class,” and that students are supervised by a volunteer staff member in an already open space, thus resulting in no undue hardship.
A few weeks ago, Brampton mayor Linda Jeffrey condemned the campaign against the accommodation, calling it “hateful.”
“Muslim students require a time to pray that may happen during a school day, and we must respect that — as we do any other religious requirement,” she wrote in a statement. “Letting Muslim students pray for 20 minutes in an empty space with the supervision of volunteer staff does not cause any financial hardship.”