Peel school board approval of anti-Islamophobia strategy draws support from community groups

Trustee Nokha Dakroub will announce the Peel District School Board's new strategy to combat Islamophobia on Thursday. Community groups welcome the plan because they say it will help make schools safer for Muslim staff and students.

Trustee Nokha Dakroub pushed for strategy, which includes mandatory staff training

At its Sept. 30 meeting, the Peel District School Board passed a motion by trustee Nokha Dakroub, pictured here, that calls for the adoption of an anti-Islamophobia strategy. The plan includes mandatory anti-Islamophobia training for all board staff members. (Supplied/Nokha Dakroub)

Community groups are welcoming a Peel District School Board decision to develop an anti-Islamophobia strategy because they say the plan will help make schools safer for Muslim staff and students.

At its Sept. 30 meeting, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) passed a motion by trustee Nokha Dakroub that called for the adoption of the strategy. The plan includes mandatory anti-Islamophobia training for all board staff members.

The board is the first in the Greater Toronto Area to commit to creating such a strategy, and Dakroub is scheduled to announce it at PDSB headquarters on Thursday.

Aasiyah Khan, manager of education programs at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), said the strategy is a step in the right direction, but if the plan is to be robust, it will require involvement from community members and the board to take specific actions.

"We're hoping that this strategy is a first step in ongoing work that is necessary to ensure that all students feel included," Khan said on Wednesday.

"We recognize that this is a systemic issue," she added.

"And so, it would require a systemic commitment and response that does include centring student voice, reviewing curricular content that is problematic, affirming student identities, staff identities, creating spaces where, if folks are experiencing Islamophobia or any form of hate, they feel comfortable enough to report it.

As for mandatory anti-Islamophobia training for staff, such education is a way to eradicate misunderstanding around Islam, to bring in "diverse narratives" about Muslim communities, and to make sure educators have the tools they need to ensure that classrooms are inclusive, Khan added.

If Islamophobia is left unchecked, it can lead to acts of violence, she said. "Our schools aren't immune to these realities."

The creation of the policy comes after the killing of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont. earlier this year and the slaying of a caretaker at a Toronto mosque in 2020.

According to the NCCM, the word "Islamophobia" is used in Canada is to describe the irrational fear or hatred of Muslims that leads to discrimination or acts of harassment or violence.

Board must raise awareness, trustee says

In a video posted to Twitter, Dakroub said: "The strategy will focus on education, building understanding, centring student voice and valuing lived experiences. It is meant to include the delivery of mandatory anti-Islamophobia training to all staff, accountability measures and regular communication with the broader community." 

Dakroub said the board has a responsibility to raise awareness, build understanding, ensure that schools are welcoming to all students and all staff, including those of Muslim faith, and deliver public education in a "culturally sensitive" manner. Peel Region is home to a vibrant Muslim community, she added.

She said the board will create a committee, made up of board staff and community members, that will have the responsibility of overseeing the strategy's rollout. Community input has been "front and centre," she said.

Einas Habib, a Grade 7 French immersion teacher at Sir William Gage Middle School in Brampton, said she is thrilled the board is tackling Islamophobia in this way. Muslim and non-Muslim teachers will benefit from the mandatory training, she said.

"I'll be honest, I was waiting for this for a very long time," she said.

"Even as a student, I always wondered when Muslims would be given more attention. Prior to even becoming a teacher, I knew there was an issue, where students felt uncomfortable, the Muslim community felt extremely uncomfortable. They didn't really feel welcome in a way, or they were afraid of being themselves. Now, as a teacher, I'm super happy about this."

Habib said she hopes the strategy will enable staff and students to have conversations about Islamophobia in class. She said she has heard from Muslim students about the struggles they face. 

"They have to try really hard and they have to be really careful with their words in order to be welcomed." 

Combat hate through education, group says

The Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA), for its part, said in a statement of support on Twitter that the strategy is in keeping with work it has been doing since 2017, which is to bring attention to hate crimes and create programs and policies to combat hate. 

"One of the most effective ways to combat hate in all of its forms is through education and education begins with ensuring our school boards are held accountable in conducting the appropriate training necessary to address the rise in Islamophobia," CASSA said in the statement.

Members of the Muslim community attend at Peel District School Board meeting before the pandemic. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

CASSA noted that the board has a "significant" number of Muslim students, staff members and teachers.

"Schools must be places of safety and should not perpetuate any hate or harm in any form," CASSA continued. "A positive learning and safe working environment needs to be cultivated and mandated to mitigate the harm — both mental and physical — caused by discrimination, xenophobia and Islamophobia."

A June 2020 report on the board found its administrators were ill-prepared to make changes to deal with racism, specifically anti-Black racism, and that Islamophobia was a concern. 

The approval of the motion came after four members of the Afzaal family were run over by a man who police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate in London last June.

It also followed the fatal stabbing of Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, 58, a volunteer caretaker at an Etobicoke mosque, while he was sitting outside the front doors of the International Muslim Organization.

Khan, for her part, said she hopes other school boards will follow Peel's lead.

"It's a long road ahead and we need all school boards to be adopting a strategy like this."

With files from Kate McGillivray and Muriel Draaisma