Muslim school holiday recognition unlikely in Canada

Canada's sometimes "hit or miss" religious accommodation policies have some wondering if some Canadian schools should follow the Big Apple's lead and close their doors for two Muslim holy days.

NYC schools will close for Muslim holidays Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Mayor Bill de Blasio says

Muslim students who want to miss a day of school for religious observance can not be penalized for the absence. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Despite a move by New York City to close its schools for two Muslim holidays starting next fall, it's unlikely anyone but Muslim Canadian students will be allowed to miss those school days north of the border. But some wonder if at least some Canadian schools should follow the Big Apple's lead.

When New York City schools close their doors for Eid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice) and Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), students "will no longer have to choose between honouring the most sacred days on their calendar or attending school," Mayor Bill de Blasio said when he made the announcement earlier this week.

Canada isn't "anywhere near that point," says Mihad Fahmy. She's the head of the National Council of Canadian Muslims' human rights committee and a labour and human rights lawyer.

Canada's human rights laws do not allow schools to penalize students for missing class to observe certain religious holidays. Students can ask for permission to be absent from school for their religion's holy days, including Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr for Muslims.

If you ask one parent, there's fantastic stories. And the other parent? It's a nightmare.— Nadir Shirazi, Multifacet Diversity Solutions Ltd.

"School boards have a duty to accommodate kids, students to the point of undue hardship. That's the standard," says Fahmy.

Those same laws also protect teachers who wish to observe religious practices during school hours. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of three Jewish teachers who sought compensation for a day's work after missing school for Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday, about a decade earlier.

Few families approach the Muslim organization for help securing days off for religious holidays, and Fahmy mostly deals with student requests for prayer space.

She doesn't believe Canadian schools need to have a blanket recognition of Muslim holidays, so long as they allow individual students the day off and avoid planning school events and tests on those days.

Policies are 'completely hit or miss'

On the other hand, how different school boards and individual schools treat requests for holiday, dietary, clothing or other accommodations can be quite different.

"It's really completely hit or miss," says Nadir Shirazi, the president of a religious and cultural diversity consulting firm. "If you ask one parent, there's fantastic stories. And the other parent? It's a nightmare."

The public school his two children attend does a decent job of accommodating their religious practices, he says. But he's heard of teachers in other schools telling Muslim students that they already receive long holidays, so why would they need more time off.

Shirazi says he'd like to see all school boards train teachers and raise awareness about religious accommodation.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city's public schools will close for two Muslim holidays next academic year. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
Peel District School Board, which serves Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga in Ontario, created a mutli-faith calendar showcasing the holy days of more than 10 religious groups. Since 2005, all the board's employees receive a copy at the start of the academic year. Teachers avoid planning tests, field trips or other significant events on those days, says Varsha Naik, the district's community liaison co-ordinator.

"If it happens to be Eid, or if it happens to be Diwali, or if it happens to be Vaisakhi," she says. "We do recognize that some families may want to celebrate and therefore would require a day off."

Canada doesn't have a perfect system, says Alimamy Bangura, the executive director of Mentors (Muslim Educational Network, Training and Outreach Service). He helps the Toronto District School Board determine how best to accommodate Muslim students' needs.

The Toronto schools are happy to excuse a student observing a holy day if they request it, he says. "If the parents don't ask, then there will be no accommodation."

Bangura estimates some 90 per cent of parents aren't aware the exemption exists. He'd like to see school boards publicize religious accommodations more to keep parents informed.

Closing some schools is a 'practical matter'

In some schools, Bangura says, it makes sense to follow New York City's example. The Muslim population is so high at some Toronto schools that few students attend on  Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, he says.

"The schools are empty. The teachers [can not] teach."

Until 2009, Toronto's York University closed its doors for three days to observe Jewish holy days, until a changing student population prompted a change. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
That is part of the practical argument in this debate, says Janet Epp Buckingham, a Trinity Western University associate professor and author of Fighting over God: A Legal and Political History of Religious Freedom in Canada. She agrees it could be beneficial at some schools.

If most students and teachers will miss a given day, it's difficult to run a regular day, she says, reminiscing how her children attended Ottawa schools with high Muslim populations, and Muslim holy days were "like a snow day."

"It's a very practical matter and it makes sense to deal with it, you know, where it's an issue."

All or nothing approach

The flip side of that argument — if those holidays are recognized — is that there may be too few days to cover the curriculum, and parents from different denominations, who don't have the day off, may struggle to find child care.

If the parents don't ask, then there will be no accommodation.— Alimamy Bangura, Mentors executive director

In 1997, a court ruled against the Islamic Schools Federation of Ontario when it wanted the Ottawa School Board to recognize two Muslim holidays. In 2009, Toronto's York University started holding classes again on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur after several decades of recognizing those as campus-wide holidays. The University of Windsor's law school stopped doing the same a year prior.

That's because it's difficult to recognize one group's holy days and not another's, Buckingham says, because Canadians demand fairness.

Naik, the woman behind the Peel District School Board's multi-faith calendar, says she believes choosing to recognize one religious group's holy days outside of Canada's statutory holidays for school closure can fragment a community.

"If we were ever, ever going to move to approving holy days in our statutory leave, then we would have to do all religious diversity, not just one group — no matter how large a number," she says.

Whether or not any Canadian schools choose to follow New York City's example, Shirazi is excited for the increased awareness about religious accommodation at educational institutions. Even though Canada has policies in place for religious accommodation, policymakers need to be revisit their guidelines to match the realities on the ground.

"This is not ... like a dusty library book that you finish and you put away. This is like a living organism — it shifts, it changes," he says. 

With files from the Associated Press


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