A campaign calling on the Peel District School Board to end the accommodation of Muslim prayer in schools has been condemned by board officials and Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey for spreading “hateful” misinformation.
At issue is the practice of Jummah, a Muslim congregational prayer held each Friday around midday.
Peel students have performed Jummah in school for several years, but a new religious accommodation policy enacted in January has sparked vitriol at school board meetings, a public protest and a petition.
“It’s been getting more aggressive with each passing day,” said Jaskaran Sandhu, spokesperson for Jeffrey’s office.
On Saturday, around 200 people held a march starting near Square One in Mississauga to demonstrate against “religious practices in public schools.”
Flyers advertising the march included contact information for Canada First, a group whose stated mission is to protest the federal Liberals’ “anti-Islamophobia” motion.
On March 6, self-described “concerned parents” launched an online petition demanding that the board “immediately discontinue . . . religious clubs and religious congregations of any religion.”
Gayathri Iyer, spokesperson for the petition’s organizers and the mother of two Peel students, said the petition was specifically inspired by concerns about Jummah.
The petition claims that “religious congregations” in schools lead to segregation, interruption of studies, increased costs to taxpayers, bullying of non-observant students, and “unsolicited exposure to religion” that could “create subconscious bias in the minds of impressionable children for or against a faith.”
Board spokesperson Brian Woodland called the petition “pure and deliberate misinformation,” and a “campaign against Islam, counter to . . . our own board values.”
“It has been frustrating and disheartening to see hatred and prejudice toward a single faith group disguised in a supposed campaign about religion in schools,” Woodland added.
Youtube videos taken at a town hall-style school board meeting in January show men named Eric Brazau and Ron Banerjee accusing Islam of promoting violent acts.
In 2014, a man named Eric Brazau was sentenced to nine months in jail for promoting hatred of Muslims and criminally harassing a Muslim family.
A man named Ron Banerjee runs Canadian Hindu Advocacy, a group previously described by the Star as “a militantly anti-Muslim organization.”
Neither Banerjee nor Brazau could be reached for comment.
Brampton mayor Jeffrey addressed “the recent misinformation and hateful speech surrounding the accommodation of Muslim prayers” in a written statement last week.
“Over the last two decades Muslim students in schools across the Region of Peel have been accommodated for Friday prayer,” Jeffrey wrote.
“The Ontario Human Rights Code mandates religious accommodation . . . 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.”
The Ontario Human Rights Code states religious accommodations may be withheld only if they create “undue hardship” in the form of cost or health and safety risks.
“Letting Muslim students pray for 20 minutes in an empty space with the supervision of volunteer staff does not cause any financial hardship,” Jeffrey wrote.
The accommodation of Jummah in Peel schools gained public attention in 2016, when the board created a new policy requiring students to read from scripted, board-approved sermons.
Following a backlash from Muslim community members, the policy was overturned. In January of this year, the board issued a new accommodation policy allowing students to write their own sermons or choose from a bank of scripted ones.
“Regretfully there has been growing xenophobia against people of the Islamic faith being spread recently,” said Peel board trustee Nokha Dakroub, who supported allowing students to write their own sermons.
“I wonder if the renewed opposition to (Jummah) is a byproduct of that sentiment.”