After gunfire erupted in a Quebec City mosque in January, Toronto father of two Simon Dar didn't know what to say to his kids.
"I find it hard to explain, especially to a nine- and 10-year-old, that people can be murdered inside a worship place, either a church or a mosque," said the Ethiopian immigrant, who's called Canada home since 1990. "That really scares me."
Dar's children go to Rose Avenue Public School, a building nestled in the heart of St. James Town, surrounded by nearly two dozen downtown apartment towers.
It's the site of a new workshop addressing racism and Islamophobia — a first-of-its-kind meeting that's being hailed as an idea worth replicating by a representative of the Toronto District School Board.
On Wednesday, Dar was among the dozens of parents and educators who gathered to gain newfound understanding about each other's cultures and faiths inside the school that's home to one of the city's most diverse groups of students.
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Many are born in Canada, the children of immigrants. Others are newly landed refugees. And more than 85 per cent of the roughly 650 students have English as their second language — representing about 50 language groups — and come from families that are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and various other faiths.
That diversity has been both a source of concern for the students' parents in the aftermath of the U.S. travel bans and the deadly mosque shooting earlier this year, with parents coming forward expressing their worries about sending kids to school at a time when hatred towards Muslims and immigrants seems to be on the rise.
But it's also been a powerful force for understanding and community-building.
"This is probably some of the most powerful, important work I've ever done in my career," says Rose Avenue principal David Crichton, who spearheaded the event.
'They're sharing incredible stories'
Already, parents are having crucial conversations, he says.
"They're being passionate. They're being personal. They're sharing incredible stories to each other," Crichton explains. "And it really helps build our empathy and understanding of each other."
Held inside the school, the workshop was meant to spark dialogue about racism, Islamophobia, and the struggles and fears that unite the school's diverse community. Already, Crichton plans to hold more in the future on various topics.
Qaiser Ahmad, an education advisor to the National Council of Canadian Muslims and a curriculum leader of guidance at Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute, was one of the first two speakers.
"I think it's an opportunity for [parents] to speak, to voice their concerns — to really get an understanding of what Canadian diversity is like," he says.
Workshop held amid racial, religious tension at GTA schools
The gathering, which brought out at least 60 parents, happened amid a backdrop of ongoing racial and religious tension in many GTA schools.
A recent provincial review of the York District School Board, for instance, described a "culture of fear" among board members and senior staff, as well as "systemic discrimination."
And earlier this year, the Peel District School Board stepped up security measures at its public meetings after months of flaring tensions over religious accommodation policies came to a head when a Qur'an was torn up by a protester.
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That tension hits close to home for Zahra Farah, who's originally from Somalia and whose two youngest children go to Rose Avenue.
"Because we wear a hijab, we are no different ... we don't want to be discriminated," she says.
Speaker Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a researcher at McMaster University and communications executive for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, notes that immigrants and refugees are more likely to experience racism and Islamophobia.
But, she adds, research shows they're "far less likely" to report it.
"That is very concerning to me as a researcher, because I feel that we have a problem — clearly, these people are experiencing this marginalization, these insults, these micro-assaults, micro-invalidations — but there's something that stops them from reporting it," Ghaffar-Siddiqui says.
Another important purpose for the workshop was helping new immigrants understand what racism actually looks like, and how to report it, she explains.
TDSB may encourage more similar workshops
TDSB superintendent John Chasty attended the workshop and says similar meetings could help bring forward biases, inspire conversations about power and privilege, and support all kinds of students and communities.
He also says it would be a "great idea" to duplicate this kind of workshop throughout the school board.
"Our students represent so many different countries, so many different faiths and cultures from all around the world," he says.
"The more we can learn about each other, the more our classrooms will be positive spaces to learn."