The Muslim prayer in a Toronto public school has now become a Canada-wide issue. And, if Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak think they can avoid the discussion by fobbing it off as a “decision of the school board,” they have their heads in the sand.
For example, there is an eye-popping discussion going on over at Paul Bennett’s “Edu-Chatter.” While his post started out on the topic of the Muslim prayer program at the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) Valley Park Middle School, somewhere around comment 140 it moved into what’s wrong with education in all corners of Canada today.
So, what is the primary cause of this anger and frustration? From what I can interpret, it is due to the fact that ordinary parents and citizens feel ignored — that they don’t have any way to provide meaningful input towards educational excellence or change. Yet, actually they do and don’t seem to realize it because the main avenue for input and change is, and always has been, through political pressure — which is why blogs like Paul’s and this one are so important.
For example, school principals and teachers have little or no power to change anything. Yes, they could be less patronizing when they start their “we know what is best for your kids” attitude but like other professionals, they are trained in their field and have an understanding of the process of learning and instruction that non-educators do not have. While that view may not be popular right now, it is reality, just as lawyers know more about Canadian law and regulations than non-lawyers.
However, neither principals nor teachers have any way of advocating for change. Teachers, particularly, simply do what they are told. Check out this handbook, for example on the duties of both. In regards to teachers, what you will find are verbs like promote, encourage, maintain, follow, participate, ensure and perform — rather than verbs like advocate. So, when a school implements a controversial decision like the Muslim prayer program, they sure did not do it alone.
It is similar with School Board Trustees and Board administrators. They must go to their political masters on any decision that is not mandated policy. So, the fact that Premier McGuinty is saying that it is up to school boards to decide whether or not to provide a Muslim prayer program, that is simply cowardice in the middle of an election campaign. Remember, McGuinty, Mr. Education himself, is the very same guy who ridiculed and rejected former PC leader John Tory’s faith-based funding platform during the 2007 Ontario election. What absolute hypocrisy!
The other stakeholders with power are, of course, officials with the various teacher’s unions and researchers within Faculties of Education. But, even they have to go to the politicians to get what they want. Yes, committees of educators develop and test curriculum guidelines, as well as conduct research. But, before anything is funded, approved or implemented, it must pass over the PA and Education Minister’s desk — for “signing off.” (I know that because I was an EA to a Harris era MPP who also happened to be the Minister of Education’s Parliamentary Assistant.)
Perhaps, then, it is long past time for the politicians to stop putting their heads in the sand and open up debate on religious accommodations and how all this fits together with the various provincial and territorial education acts, human rights legislation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Simply to suggest, as TDSB Director, Chris Spence did, that the Charter supercedes all other legislation, is not helpful.
Update Friday, July 22nd: Should any politician or their staff read this, I would like to suggest that when the Ontario PCs win the October 6th election campaign, one of the new Ontario government’s first decisions is to set up a volunteer Royal Commission on School Rights and Accommodations with the Chair paid a dollar a year.
Like the 1990’s commission on learning set up the former Rae NDP government, it can have hearings and presentations across the province, ending with a final report and implementable recommendations.
Why? Because we need to get answers to a couple of questions:
- When it comes to religious accommodations in Ontario’s public school boards, which law guides practice — The Ontario Education Act, The Ontario Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
- If one law supercedes the others, which one is it and what are the implications for other rights, such as gender and sexual equality?
In other words, we have come a long way as a society and, while religious accommodations may seem like a noble goal, we simply cannot allow any of our enshrined equality rights to be trampled on because of political correctness regarding one vocal religious minority.
Girls should not be separated from boys and they most certainly should not be identified as mentruating. Homosexuals should not feel threatened and or shunned. And, if Islam is accommodated in one school because of the needs of a particular community, then other religions in other school neighbourhood should have the same accomodations.