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Muslim students, teachers and educational leaders are among those working to make Canadian classrooms more inclusive. But many say the struggle to dispel Islamophobia is only just beginning and must encompass everyone.

Anti-Islamophobia strategy launched at Ontario school board

Ontario’s Peel District School Board has become the first school board to announce the implementation of an anti-Islamophobia strategy for both staff and students. 1:58

Over the years, Nokha Dakroub has come face-to-face with racism and anti-Islamic hate during her work as a school trustee.

Among the most vivid incidents were a series of meetings at her Mississauga, Ont., school board in 2017, when protesters spewed Islamophobic comments and tore pages from a Qur’an in objection to a long-held policy granting Muslim students space at school for prayers.

This month, however, Dakroub is proud of a major, pioneering step the Peel District School Board (PDSB) is taking against those very sentiments: the board passed her motion to adopt an anti-Islamophobia strategy, which will include mandatory training for all PDSB staff. 

“We need to continue doing work, through public education, to combat the elements of hate that exist in our society,” she said. 

Muslim students, teachers and educational leaders are among those working to make our classrooms more inclusive, but many say that the struggle to dispel Islamophobia is only just beginning and must expand to encompass everyone.

Amid an increase in hate crimes against Muslims across the country, including the targeted attack that killed four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ont., in June, Dakroub has noticed a positive shift toward fighting Islamophobia.

She believes Canada is slowly moving in the right direction and links this changing mentality to more Canadians acknowledging serious issues facing our nation, such as systemic racism against Black and Indigenous people.

“This is not going to be an overnight fix. We’re not going to roll out a strategy in a few months and then all of a sudden declare that Islamophobia is over and we no longer have an issue. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take multiple opportunities of learning and unlearning,” said Dakroub. 

“Is it going to work? I think it will, because I strongly believe that education is the key to — and specifically public education is the key to — raising awareness and changing the world.” 

Not simply ‘an issue for Muslims,’ says student

The fact that the Peel board’s decision is aimed at making a measurable difference at the classroom level “just hits personally,” for Alisha Aslam, a 16-year-old student who lives in neighbouring Toronto. 

“Nothing will happen until we try to change the places where we spent our lives the most — and for a lot of people, like me, that’s the classroom.” she said. 

Alisha Aslam, a 16-year-old high school student in northeastern Toronto, created a website and school resources to combat Islamophobia. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

A member of the Ontario Provincial Youth Cabinet and passionate advocate who campaigns against discrimination both in school and in her northeast Toronto community, Aslam created a website and school resources to combat Islamophobia, including encouraging fellow students to speak up against it. 

“I wanted to see change happening — not in the next few years, but I want to see it right now,” she said.

The teen added however that Islamophobia “isn’t just an issue for Muslims” to grapple with.

“This is really an issue for humanity and for all of us Canadians to solve.” 

Ongoing anti-racism training needed for all staff

Adopting an anti-Islamophobia strategy is a phenomenal idea for several reasons, according to Regina high school English teacher Aysha Yaqoob.

Naming Islamophobia is important in terms of specifically addressing anti-Islamic hate, she explained, and a dedicated strategy will help create safe spaces for Muslim students and staff.

“It’s an idea that every school division across Canada needs to adopt,” she said.

WATCH | How this Regina teacher builds a safe space for students to discuss race, biases and inequity: 

‘Students are definitely open to learning more about inequities’

How this Regina teacher makes her classroom ‘a safe space and a great space’ for students to dive into conversations about race, privilege, biases and inequity. 1:04

Still, Yaqoob wants to see precise details of the strategy to come, especially around what mandatory training will look like.

“Some of the [anti-racism] training that is done … isn’t really authentic or meaningful. It’s very short and isn’t ongoing. And so I’d hope that this training is something that’s ongoing, that builds upon itself and that year-to-year, it’s a mandatory training for all staff, not just teaching staff,” she said.

It’s also important to have Muslim educators leading the comprehensive training, she said, which must go beyond the surface of cultural celebrations, for instance.

“I would really hope and encourage that whoever is leading this initiative is someone who is Muslim, who can speak to incidents of anti-Islamic hate, Islamophobia and also do it in an authentic and meaningful way,” said Yaqoob. 

“Ongoing and anti-racist kind of training [and] anti-oppressive training within there, rather than just cultural diversity celebrations, which we’re kind of used to here in Canada.”

For many Canadians, the horrific murder of the Afzaal family brought to light a fact all too familiar for the Muslim community: Hate attacks are very common.

Since then, however, Yaqoob said she thinks there’s been little action on the part of political leaders to fight Islamophobia.

“Non-Muslim folks were actually listening and understanding that this is a huge issue here in Canada.… That racism and systemic racism is deeply embedded within the very fabric of our nation here,” she said.

Mere months later, though, “I’m not sure that I see much progress,” she said. 

“I don’t know how much longer Muslim folks can wait if the consequences of anti-Islamic hate is our lives.” 

‘We can’t really be serious about tackling Islamophobia if we don’t start with our education systems,’ says Fatema Abdalla, communications coordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims. (National Council of Canadian Muslims)

This summer, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) released a set of 61 policy recommendations for all levels of government to take action against Islamophobia, including measures for Canada’s education system.

The non-profit advocacy group developed the recommendations after holding consultation sessions with mosques, community groups and organizations representing Canadian Muslims across the country.

It’s a key first step for all school districts and divisions to recognize Islamophobia as an issue that must be addressed and to follow through, like the Peel board, with adopting a strategy to combat it, according to Fatema Abdalla, the council’s communications co-ordinator. 

She recognized recent movement from two provincial education ministries on the issue, including Ontario earmarking some funding for school resources to raise awareness about Islamophobia and British Columbia’s recent proclamation of October as Islamic Heritage Month, which also noted its commitment to creating “a K-12 anti-racism action plan with an anti-Islamophobia strategy.” 

The B.C. proclamation added that “teaching British Columbia’s colonial history to children and highlighting local Muslim stories helps provide tools to tackle anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia.”

The NCCM is calling on all provincial and territorial ministries of education to make as “robust” a commitment as B.C., said Abdalla, who also emphasized the importance of taking a preventative rather than reactive approach.

“Some of the stories that we hear of what students and staff have experienced is really heartbreaking,” she said. “We can’t really be serious about tackling Islamophobia if we don’t start with our education systems.”

Muslim students, teachers and educational leaders are among those working to make Canadian classrooms more inclusive. But many say the struggle to dispel Islamophobia is only just beginning and must encompass everyone.

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