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Reward video latest wrinkle in Peel board’s religious tensions

A Toronto-area school board is cautioning its staff and students to be vigilant after an inflammatory video was found circulating online offering a $1,000 reward for a recording of Muslim students using hate speech in Friday prayers.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto-area school board is cautioning its staff and students to be vigilant after an inflammatory video was found circulating online offering a $1,000 reward for a recording of Muslim students using hate speech in Friday prayers.

"Clearly we're concerned that someone is trying to essentially fund a campaign of hate and using our students in that campaign," Peel District School Board spokesman Brian Woodland said on Friday.

Asked about the video during a news conference in Toronto on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians "need to continue to stand strong against intolerance and demonstrate that we know that working together is the way to build a stronger country and a stronger world."

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Tensions between the Peel board and some members of the community, including anti-Muslim groups, have flared in recent months over schools providing space for Muslim students to pray as a group every Friday. Critics argue a secular school system should not accommodate religion, and some who are opposed to it are specifically against accommodating the Muslim community in schools.

But Ontario boards, both public and Catholic, are legally required to provide religious accommodations, when requested.

Mr. Woodland said the board has alerted police to the presence of the video, and a memo has been circulated among schools asking them to be "extra vigilant … and that the invasion of privacy is not appropriate." Students have also been circulating an e-mail, alerting each other to the contents of the video.

"Our greatest concern is that Muslim students will feel targeted and it creates an environment that isn't safe," Mr. Woodland said. "This is hate-filled showmanship by someone who wants attention for his ongoing attack on members of our school community."

Constable Harinder Sohi, a spokesman for the Peel Regional Police, said police are investigating the incidents, treating them "very seriously and have allocated the appropriate resources as required."

The video posted on YouTube by Kevin Johnston of the online publication, The Freedom Report, has him encouraging students to "sneak a camera" into the Muslim prayer service and if he finds any hate speech, he would provide that student with a $1,000 cash reward.

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"I'm going to give you cash, my own savings, if you get us the evidence that we need to put these kids, and the imams and [Peel board chair] Janet McDougald in jail for hate speech and inciting hatred in our public schools, which are supposed to be centres of education and free thought, not mosques," he said in the video.

In the video, Mr. Johnston claimed that hate speech in the Friday prayers would be in Arabic and would go unchecked by staff supervisors. But the Peel board countered by saying that the sermons are in English.

Muslim students have observed Friday prayers in Peel schools for about 20 years now.

The protests in Peel, however, escalated after the board brought a new procedure in the fall that required Muslim students to choose from six prewritten sermons at the Jummah prayers, the communal worship in which devout Muslims participate every Friday. That meant students leading Friday prayers for their Muslim peers at their high school could use only the sermons (khutbahs) approved by the school board, instead of writing their own and using one approved by a school administrator.

After some resistance from students and community members that the decision to limit their sermons violated their right to religious freedom, the board earlier this year revised its procedure and allowed students to either deliver their own sermons or choose from several prewritten ones approved by local imams.

Recent board meetings at Peel have been heated. At last week's meeting, police intervened after several members in the audience shouted anti-Muslim rhetoric, tore pages from a Koran and stepped on the religious text.

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The events forced Ontario's Liberal government to issue a statement that it supported the district's move to provide religious accommodation to its students.

With a report from Oliver Moore

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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