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A community divided: The fight over Canadian values threatens to boil over in Peel

TORONTO

A community divided

Rooted in a very public dispute over the place of religious practice in public schools, disagreement on the fundamental essence of 'Canadian' identity and the virtue of tolerance threatens to boil over in Peel

Outside the offices of the Peel District School Board in Mississauga, secular-school advocates, many from South Asian backgrounds, protest religious accommodation in Peel schools last Tuesday.

Two large paintings of the Hindu god Krishna are mounted on the wall of Ram Subrahmanian's living room, but he doesn't want to be labelled as a Hindu.

What's his religion? "Canadian!" he says, his eyes lit up behind his glasses, punctuating his pride with a fist pump. It's Tuesday evening, and many of the dozens of South Asians he's standing with outside of the Peel District School Board offices in Mississauga also worship at the altar of the maple leaf and love singing that ancient hymn, O Canada.

Someone begins a call-and-response chant through a megaphone: "No religious practice!" A group of protesters reply: "In public schools!"

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Mr. Subrahmanian is touting a sign that says "There is no such thing as 'religious accommodation' in the Ontario Human Rights Code." For months, Mr. Subrahmanian and his cohorts have protested the school board's policy on religious accommodation. Muslim Friday prayer, called Jummah, has had a place in Peel schools for decades, but the issue became a point of contention in the wider community late last year when the board revisited how the service was conducted and tried to provide more consistent guidelines to schools.

Last month, a meeting to discuss the matter devolved into chaos when protesters shouted anti-Muslim remarks and tore up a copy of the Koran. Later, an inflammatory video posted to YouTube offered a cash reward for a recording of Muslim students using hate speech in Friday prayers.

To the school board, the debate is over. They've moved on to other topics at their meetings. But protesters say they'll be back to picket the next board meeting and the one after that.

Some have threatened to take the school board to court. And notably, at this protest, as with others before it, the majority of the crowd is South Asian – members of a community that makes up half of Peel's population.

The region is home to the country's fastest-growing Muslim population, according to the 2011 National Household Survey – 12 per cent of those who practice Islam in Canada live there. Now that minorities have reached a critical mass – 57 per cent of the population of Peel – they're beginning to divide and engage in identity politics, said Pradip Rodrigues, a former Times of India reporter who has covered the rifts within the Indo-Canadian community for Canindia News for the past five years.

The debate at the school board has awakened old tensions in the South Asian community. British India's partition, in 1947, which created two countries, predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, exacerbated tensions between the two religious groups. In 2002, about 1,000 people were killed in riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat, the majority of whom were Muslims. Mr. Rodrigues notes that many Indian immigrants of the last generation have arrived in Canada with that lived experience and religious baggage. "If this was a mostly white town, things would be different," Mr. Rodrigues said.

Amira Elghawaby, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, says it's disheartening to watch sectarian strains play out. "Here in Canada, we hope people can put aside their prejudices and biases from these experiences to find common ground. It's unfortunate that not everyone is able to do that," she said. "Issues like this one can be manipulated in order to drive wedges between communities instead of bringing them together."

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At the heart of the dispute at the school board are two very different interpretations of the so-called "Canadian" value of tolerance. The board and the province's Education Minister say that allowing students to pray at school aligns with the province's human-rights code and the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But protesters say elected leaders are giving special accommodations to one specific group, which they suggest conflicts with the country's values.

"There is favouritism going on," said Paul Menezes, an Indo-Canadian who is a member of Concerned Parents of Canada (CPC). Picketing outside of Tuesday's school-board meeting. Mr. Menezes says he is most bothered by the fact that at some schools, boys sit in front of girls at Jummah – to him, an act of blatant sexism. And allowing religious accommodations in schools opens the door to further concessions for Muslims, he adds.

Ram Subrahmanian, left, has become an active participant in protests of religious accommodation in Peel schools as of late. Mr. Subrahmanian and his peers say the policy amounts to favouritism.

"We don't want to see our society crumbling under an Islamic onslaught."

Vibha Malhotra, another member of CPC and the grandmother of Peel students, quickly arrives at Mr. Menezes's side to bolster his point: "The fabric of Canada is changing," she said.

Though she immigrated to Canada 43 years ago from India, she bristles at being identified as Indian and believes others should have the same mentality.

"You came to Canada; assimilate here," she says, her voice growing raw.

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Mr. Subrahmanian says he has no ill feelings about Islam. In fact, he says, a surgeon he once had is Muslim, as is his wife's hairdresser, as is his son's best friend. How could anyone call him anti-Muslim? This is simply a question of principle for him: If the public is funding schools, they must be kept secular (Ontario also funds Catholic schools). If Muslim students want to pray, he says, they should do it at home or at the mosque – not on school property.

He has no children attending school in Peel, but says he's taken up this cause to "save other children out there and to save our future generations. I don't have any political aspiration in this. I'm not doing this for name or fame or money."

There are varied groups, some with overlapping memberships, who have a shared mission of ending religious accommodation in Peel schools. Religion Out Of Public Schools (ROOPS) put together an online petition with just over 6,400 signatures calling for the school board to stop allowing religious clubs and congregations on school grounds. Signatories are not only from Peel, but across Canada and parts of the United States.

Then there's Keep Religion Out of Our Public Schools (KROOOPS), which Mr. Subrahmanian co-founded with nine other Indo-Canadians. They have plans to sue the school board. Rise Canada is the group that protested M-103, the anti-Islamophobia motion, outside of a downtown Toronto mosque in February with signs that said "Muslims are Terrorists" and "Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram Are Islam." CPC, which formed last December, have been the main organizers of the protests.

ROOPS, Rise Canada and CPC all claim ethnically diverse memberships, but the vast majority who have participated in the past three rallies in Peel have been South Asian.

While Ms. Malhotra, Mr. Menezes, Mr. Subrahmanian and several others at Tuesday's protest insisted on being identified only as Canadian, the fact that the face of the protest is South Asian is important, Mr. Rodrigues says.

If the demographic shifts in Peel spread to other parts of the country, he predicts similar conflicts will follow. The country's elected leaders, including the Prime Minister, make it a point to condemn attacks on Muslims by promoting M-103 and defending accommodation for Muslim prayers in schools. But when they do this, opponents see one religious minority receiving special status in Canada at the expense of others, Mr. Rodrigues says.

Most protesters have stayed on the theme of wanting a secular board of education, de-emphasizing the role of any one particular religion.

‘Respect existence or expect resistance,’ reads the shirt of an accommodation advocate at a school-board meeting on April 12.

In a message ahead of an April 1st rally, CPC instructed members not to speak to media, "but if you really get cornered please stick to central, neutral theme, vocabulary and tone." They've asked those from other groups who attend their rallies not to bring signs that target a specific religion or group. CPC said they were neither connected to nor shared the ideologies of Rise Canada, though they steered clear of naming which parts of the group's language and stance they disagreed with.

ROOPS has also tried to keep its messaging focused. One of its members, Jay Mehta, said he condemns what happened at the Peel meeting when a copy of the Koran was torn and stomped on. He said his group opposes all religious clubs and religious congregations in schools. "We are real parents, we have a point here," he said, asking that his group not be painted with the same brush as radicals. "We are not part of them, or they are not part of us," he said.

Not all protesters toe the line.

Ron Banerjee, a visible figure at all the protests, sees U.S. President Donald Trump as a hero, and campaigned for him ahead of the election. Many have credited Mr. Trump's ascent with creating a climate where Islamophobic and xenophobic comments are more common, if not more acceptable. Mr. Banerjee speaks of the perceived threats of Islam in the same way he did in 2012, when he last made waves; the difference is, now he's joined by a chorus of other voices on both sides of the border.

Mr. Banerjee says his day job is working as a "hired gun" to fringe political groups and parties, including Rise Canada, which has been present at all the Peel protests. Years ago, he gained notoriety when he tried to end Muslim prayer service at a Toronto public school (the service is still active), organized a dog-walking protest outside a mosque (three dogs attended) and threatened to screen the anti-Islamic film The Innocence of Muslims at a Toronto theatre (it never happened). He identifies as Hindu and leads a group called the Canadian Hindu Advocacy, but has drawn suspicion in the past for being the only spokesperson – and perhaps the only member – of his organization. His work today is inspired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, as leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has revived Hindu nationalism in that country. The logo for Rise Canada borrows the same green and orange lotus graphic from the BJP's logo and adds a maple leaf to it.

His opposition to letting Muslim students pray at school goes beyond the principle of keeping the public-education system secular – he takes issue with the content of the prayers.

"Our younger generation is being absolutely corrupted by these evil ideologies that are infesting the education infrastructure of the school systems," he says. "By their very nature, [Muslim prayers] promote barbaric, uncivilized, un-Canadian values."

While the movement in Canada isn't as mature as it is in the United States or Britain, Hindu nationalists here may be adopting "an anti-Islam and selective anti-immigrant posture … as a way of gaining greater strength," says Narendra Subramanian (no relation to Ram Subrahmanian), a political science professor at McGill University who studies nationalism and South Asian politics.

There's a benefit for white-nationalist groups who are anti-Islam to align with this group of Hindus – having non-white allies can soften their image. On the flip side, Hindu nationalists may be able to push their own agendas more effectively when they find common cause with other groups, Professor Subramanian says.

Ram Subrahmanian of KROOOPS also reveres Mr. Modi, and was one of 10,000 to see him speak during a visit to Canada in 2015. He says he feels disenchanted with the current conversation on national identity here in Canada.

"When [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau comes up and says Canada does not have a core identity, it causes me great pain," he says. He provides a list of what he thinks Canadian identity is: "freedom," "the Great North," "the Canadian national anthem," "the national flag.

"Canadian identity is freedom to practice what you believe in," he continues, adding an important caveat: "in your room, without imposing on others."

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Bill M-103, the anti-Islamophobia law. It is in fact a motion, not a law.
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