Indian consulate says teachers' lessons on farmer protests could 'poison' relations with Canada

The Indian consulate in Toronto is attempting to silence teachers giving lessons about the ongoing protests by predominantly Sikh farmers in India, claiming they are a security threat and part of a "conspiracy to sabotage the goodwill" between India and Canada.

Consulate urged province to investigate what it claims is a security threat

Women farmers shout slogans at the site of ongoing protests near New Delhi on March 8, 2021. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

The Indian consulate in Toronto is trying to stop GTA teachers from giving lessons about the ongoing protests by predominately Sikh farmers in India, claiming the material poses a security threat and could "poison" relations between India and Canada.

In a strongly worded letter dated March 11, the Consulate General of India, which represents the Indian government, claimed what elementary and high school students in Peel, Toronto and York region are learning about the protests could disrupt peaceful relations between Indian communities in Ontario. 

The consulate urged Ontario's Office of International Relations and Protocol to "alert the Canadian authorities ... to investigate" what's being taught and "to sensitize" the school boards so they "immediately remove such hateful and factually incorrect material." 

"The Consulate General would further like to state that it considers this incident to be extremely serious and views it as a conspiracy to sabotage the goodwill and warm friendly relations between India and Canada by inimical entities to further their own nefarious agenda," the letter says.

Brampton high school teacher Simmi Jaswal has been incorporating discussions about the farmer protests in her geography and social justice courses this school year.

Jaswal is Sikh, as are many of her students, who also have family members in India who've been participating in the protests since last fall. Tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting against the government's agricultural reforms, marching from Punjab and Haryana states to the capital New Delhi.

"This is not just a distant connection. It's about our students' lived experiences," Jaswal said. "It does ease some of their pain and anxiety a little bit to be acknowledged, to feel seen and to have it discussed."

The official diplomatic note was obtained by the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) through a freedom of information request made to the Peel District School Board and supplied to CBC News. 

Balpreet Singh, spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, says the letter from the Indian consulate is 'quite ridiculous.' (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"I think the letter is quite ridiculous," said Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the WSO, which advocates for Sikh interests and human rights. "The serious accusations being made are completely baseless."

He said it's frightening, too. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government "has tried to silence dissenting voices in India using scare tactics and it looks like those attempts are being continued here in Canada," Singh said. "It shows they're not afraid of trying to interfere in Canadian matters."

The Indian consulate declined to comment, but acknowledged it had sent the letter to the province and is awaiting a response.

Ontario's Education Minister Stephen Lecce met with concerned parents this month to reaffirm its commitment to human rights and making sure all students feel respected, said spokesperson Caitlin Clark.

The ministry's expectation is of "impartiality and sensitivity when raising world events — we insist kids make their own conclusions, in bias-free environment," Clark said.

Why are farmer protests being taught?

The farmers say they were not consulted on new laws that favour corporations and drive down crop prices.

The Modi government says the change is necessary for India's development and farmers will have more freedom to sell directly to stores.

WATCH | How the world has reacted to farmer protests in India:

How the world has reacted to farmer protests in India

3 years ago
Duration 2:43
Supporters of farmers protesting for months in India are grateful for the international response to the movement. But there are others who think the outside world shouldn't meddle with India's affairs.

Authorities have attempted to block demonstrators by shutting down the Internet where farmers are camped out, erecting barricades around the city and charging journalists with sedition for their coverage of events. Police and protesters clashed violently in January, leaving one dead and hundreds injured. 

The government has attempted to shutdown Twitter accounts critical of its handling of the protests and has criticized celebrities, such as Rihanna, who voiced their support for farmers.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last November the situation was "concerning," India's Ministry of External Affairs decried his comments as "interference." 

Teachers continue lessons

Jaswal says she feels a responsibility to unpack the politics surrounding the events with her students, as they're already talking about it on social media. She bases her lessons on media reports.

"I make it very frank to my students that in my view what we're looking at is a form of oppression," Jaswal said. "My preference is to centre on marginalized voices and identities. But if you feel like you're not hearing a particular side, then we have that conversation." 

The oppressor, she said, isn't the Indian people, which includes Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs along with many other religious minorities, but rather the state. 

Security officers stand guard at the site of a farmers' protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border in India on Dec.3, 2020. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

The Peel School Board, which received the letter from the Indian consulate, said in a statement it's aware of farmers in India exercising "their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly." The board, encompassing Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, has not discouraged teachers from discussing the topic with their students. 

"Educators and school leaders are encouraged to take up these discussions with equitable considerations to stimulate inquiry and reflection, and to ensure the inclusion and wellbeing of their students," said spokesperson Malon Edwards in an email Friday.

Consulate claims students bullied

CBC News has obtained a lesson the consulate describes as "polarizing,"  saying it has stirred up "hatred" toward Indians and bullying against students.

The lesson asks students to consider why farmers are protesting, what protesting means and to explain the situation from different perspectives.

It also asks students why the government is trying to silence protesters and includes a letter from a Canadian Sikh student saying, "the Indian government passed three farm bills undemocratically for the benefit of private corporations."

Ritesh Malick, a parent in Vaughan, Ont., says he was disturbed when his daughter in Grade 6 was taught about the protests in "a very biased way" that sided with farmers. 

His daughter was offended by the other students and the teacher speaking negatively about the country her family is from, Malick said. 

"My daughter said she didn't want to go to school," he said, adding that these types of conversations lead to bullying and fights among kids. 

Malick started an online petition, "NO To Hateful, Biased, Objectionable, InAppropriate, Propaganda Content at Schools," which has close to 3,000 signatures. He and other parents reached out to the consulate urging it to intervene.

"What does Canada have to do with it?" Malick said.

"Why should there be a rift in Canadian communities and why should there be a rift in Canadian classrooms? We should concentrate on Canadian issues."