Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"But what about the Muslims?" Scapgoating Immigrants and People of Colour

About ten years ago, I was working in the library of a middle school when I was pulled into a conversation with a fellow teacher and an administrator. The former had told the latter that my library was in possession of a title that might not be appropriate for adolescent readers. I presume the purpose of the meeting was to summon me to my senses. Here's how it went:

"Mom and Mum are Getting Married!"
The offending title was a benign little picture book called Mom and Mum are Getting Married, one I've had in every school library I've run -- that's five and counting over eighteen years I've been an elementary teacher. Published in 2004 -- shortly after the State of Massachusetts equalized marriage rights, with Canada following suit -- it is the story of a little girl who's excited about her parents' wedding. I pointed out that the book was a needed recognition of diverse families in our schools, just like others I had about single-parent families, extended families, and the like.

"I don't think we even have any gay families in the school," offered the administrator.

"First," I replied, "What's a gay family? And how would we know that? We know what parents or guardians are responsible for children, but we have now way of knowing what their orientation is, or that of their children."

I knew what she meant, of course. Her hetero-normative assessment of families in our school was simple: She knew of no child with two mums or two dads; therefore, all our parents had to be straight. The kids, too. Then she dropped the big one:

"But what are our Muslim students going to read?"

(Keep in mind, these children were twelve to fourteen years of age.)

"They can read any book they want," was my reply. "It's a library. In a school. Where our job has always been to teach children about how different people live all over the world. They're Muslim; they're not made of glass. I find it troubling to assume that they or their families would automatically be opposed to learning about something because it might be different from what they are used to."

I stood my ground. The book remained.

Speakers at the student-led March For Our Education Toronto - SAVE SEX ED, T&R protest echoed concerns I've long held about scapegoating of religious minorities, people of colour, as well as recent immigrants, in the now-eight-year-long sex ed debacle. Co-organizer Frank Hong called out this exploitation:

"It is unfortunate that immigrant communities were so shamelessly manipulated by radical social conservatives. They were able to target each culture's weaknesses and stir up hatred and division all for their petty political goals. Shame on them for exploiting minority causing the situation of where we are today."

March for our Education co-organizers Frank Hong
and Rayne Fisher-Quann at Queen's Park. July 21, 2018. 

Backlash against the original curriculum in 2010 was driven largely by far right Christians -- the usual crowd: Charles McVety of Canada Christian College, Gwen Landolt of REAL Women of Canada, Jack Fonseca of Campaign Life Coalition, Teresa Pierre of Parents As First Educators. They were shrill, but they didn't really draw big crowds.

Enter the Thorncliffe Parents Association, a protest group that emerged in 2014, after then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the 2010 curriculum was going to be making a comeback. The Thorncliffe Park community in the former Borough of East York is home to one of the largest elementary schools in North America -- so large, in fact, that when the Province of Ontario shifted from half-day to full-day Kindergarten, a separate building and school was created to accommodate them.

Languages most commonly spoken other than English at home are Urdu and Gurarati in the predominantly South Asian community. The neighbourhood had been at the centre of the controversy over Bill 13, The Accepting Schools Act, back in 2012. At that time, right wing activists had created boiler-plate "family spiritual values letters" -- downloaded by parents and submitted to schools. The letters enumerated topics parents deemed unacceptable for their children, and were sent to schools with the expectation that parents would be given advance notice. The letters, by the way, went nowhere -- school boards were adamant. A court case launched by Hamilton, Ontario, parent Steve Tsourloukis ultimately failed in its mission to make such letters a legal requirement of schools.

By the 2015-16 school year, when the curriculum was to be rolled out, parents in the community were already well-mobilized. Strikes ensued, in which parents kept kids home or sent them to makeshift lessons at a nearby park and community centre. Similar protests popped up in Peel and elsewhere. Horrendous tales of children being instructed to disrobe for lessons on anatomy circulated in fliers distributed in languages spoken at home.

Pressure was exerted on parents not to send their kids to school. A teacher in Thorncliffe told me that the school's principal had received a phone call from an anxious parent who said she couldn't get out of her building because protestors were blocking the front door. Teachers in several schools relate stories of parents keeping their kids home, not because they objected to the curriculum.

Because the parents didn't want their children witnessing the anger and shouting of the protest.

A community volunteer teaching Thorncliffe Park students in a nearby park.
I recall chatting with co-workers during the strikes. A fellow-teacher said to me of the parent protests in Thorncliffe Park, "But it's against their religion."

Let's pause to consider what might constitute it. A student having two parents of the same gender feeling welcome at school? A child worried over questions about their own gender identity? A student learning the correct name of all their body parts, including genitalia, in order to protect against inappropriate touching? Having the right to define personal boundaries? Learning to respect those of others? Learning that abstinence is the most surefire way of avoiding STIs and unplanned pregnancy, so long as one practises it? Learning that self-pleasuring is a normal expression of ones sexuality?

Any one of the above might be against somebody's religion -- or their interpretation of their religion -- but it also doesn't make any of above invalid. Education ministries, school boards and school staff are increasingly mindful of the ethno-cultural and religious diversity of the communities in which we work. Those of us who benefit from a system that rewards our own privilege have tried to attune ourselves to respect others who have not benefited similarly and who see the world differently. That's a good thing.

At some point, though, there are views we cannot accommodate.

This was brought home to me during a recent discussion with a school administrator about my work as a GSA leader. He explained quite calmly why such a group could never exist in his school. Don't get me wrong, was is message. I'm right there with you, but our Muslim parents wouldn't understand. He cited the protests I discussed above, parents permanently withdrawing their children from schools, and the peril to smaller schools where staff and community members fear that closure is imminent.

My response to him? "No child or family in your school can possibly against someone else's religion."

That, for instance, is not a reasonable accommodation.

On the other side of this coin is the exploitation of these communities that Frank Hong spoke about. Back in April of 2015, I wrote about one of several very large protests mounted against the curriculum. On the one hand, groups like the one in Thorncliffe were being presented as being grassroots. At the same time, traditional white, Christian organizers were becoming more present in the protests. This was the speakers list from one such event:

MyChildMyChoice committee organizers including Sam Sotiropoulos -- former TDSB Trustee who became famous for his appropriation of the word homosexist.

Teresa Pierre, Parents As First Educators -- Catholic parent advocate who's petitioned against GSAs, HPV shots, and OECTA at Pride. (Update: Tanya Granic Allen later became the leader of this group.)

Charles McVety, Institute for Canadian Values -- who's been staying away from public events on the sex ed curriculum until now.

Monte McNaughton, former PC Leadership contender -- used the curriculum to launch his campaign with an appearance on 100 Huntley Street.

Patrick Brown, PC Leadership contender (tentative due to schedule conflict)

Jack Fonseca, Campaign Life Coalition -- a frequent guest of the former Sun News Network.

Parents from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds -- I presume these are the grassroots folks.
Many of the above would continue in this fight. Mrs Granic Allen parlayed her activism into a shot at running for the Ontario PCs. Although Ford terminated her candidacy, I'm betting she comes back. Most disturbing was the presence of Charles McVety at these events. Mr McVety's television program was suspended from broadcast following a ruling by regulators regarding his statements on Islam and homosexuality.

My heart to hurts think of buses being sent out to various neighbourhoods, residents herded aboard, to ship them to Queen's Park to listen to Mr McVety lecture them.

Also worth noting is that among white Christian leadership of the anti-sex ed movement, we find a lot of support not only for Doug Ford, but also for Donald Trump, a President who actually tried to close the boarders to Muslims and referred to African countries as "shit holes."

PressProgress -- Doug Ford ally Charles McVety:
Teaching creationism in schools “sounds like a good idea”
Photo by Jennifer McVety, Facebook

The final word on this goes to advocate and educator Farrah Kahn of Ryerson University's Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education (OSVSE). As a queer Muslim woman, Farrah stands in stark contrast to the image of reflexive homophobia cast upon her community. Her concluding remarks: "Stop blaming Muslims [for the anti sex ed protest]. We didn't start it. It's everyone's problem."

Farrah Khan at Queen's Park. July 21, 2018.

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