Harmony Movement, Anti-Racism Group In Ontario, Shutting Down After 25 Years Due To Funding Cuts

Mohamed Omar
Harmony Movement, an Ontario-based organization that facilitates equity and anti-racism workshops across the province, says provincial funding cuts are forcing it to shut down.

TORONTO — An Ontario organization that has been providing anti-racism education programs to teachers and students across the province says funding cuts are forcing it to shut down its operations.

Toronto-based Harmony Movement will have to lay off 11 full-time staff, Cheuk Kwan, the group's executive director, told HuffPost Canada. Founded in 1994, the organization facilitated equity-focused, anti-racism workshops for 59 out of 60 English school boards in the province.

The Ontario government informed the group last December that it would no longer be receiving provincial funding, Kwan said.

The news comes as the spectre of extremism haunts communities in Canada and around the world. Last month, a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand killed 50 people, many gunned down while in silent prayer. The shooter posted a manifesto online before the attack claiming he wanted to create "an atmosphere of fear" against Muslims, according to The Guardian.

Cheuk Kwan, the executive director of Harmony Movement, says his group was told to hold off on applying for provincial funding last year and wait until after the provincial election.

"This is unfortunate, because if you look at the [2017] Quebec mosque shooting and then now you look at [Christchurch], more and more ... we are under the threat of white supremacy. We need to deal more with this kind of threat beyond the three Rs and getting your math and English right," Kwan said.

According to Statistics Canada data released last November, hate crimes in 2017 were up 47 per cent compared to the year prior, with most of the incidents targeting Muslim, Jewish, and black populations. Most of that jump was seen in Ontario and Quebec. Before that, StatCan data pointed to a 253 per cent increase in police-reported hate crimes against Muslims between 2012 and 2015, according to Global News.

Last month, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told the UN Security Council that neo-Nazis, white supremacists and "incels, nativists, and radical anti-globalists" threaten the stability of the country, according to the National Observer.

Regular funding process wasn't followed: Kwan

Since 2011, Harmony Movement received between $200,000 and $300,000 annually — funds tied to the former Liberal government inclusive education strategy. It funded interactive workshops covering topics such as Islamophobia, LGBTQ issues and anti-Indigenous racism.

Beyond standard lectures, program manager Rima Dib said some were two-day long events that gave students and educators tools and practical advice, rather than just raising awareness about discrimination or oppression.

"Everything from how to respond [to discrimination,] how to interrupt, how to challenge stereotypes to how to lead an initiative in your school that challenges an injustice," she said.

Youth participants are photographed at a week-long equity camp organized by Harmony Movement in partnership with the York Catholic District School Board.

The funding process generally started in the spring when the government would ask Harmony Movement and other groups providing similar programs to apply for funding.

That didn't happen last year.

Kwan said the group was told to hold off applying because no funding decisions could be made until after the provincial election and budget priorities were set.

But in December, the group received a letter that said because the province's $14.5 billion deficit is "a significant concern," the government had to make "necessary decisions to reduce spending wherever possible"

Rima Dib, a program manager at Harmony Movement, said some of the group's anti-racism workshops are intensive, two-day events that go beyond standard lectures on discrimination.

A spokesperson for the Ontario education ministry told HuffPost in an email that the group did not "submit a proposal for funding to the ministry for 2018-19 or 2019-2020."

"That's their narrative. They said 'well, they didn't apply for funding.' That's a ... hypocritical way of saying it," Kwan said. "That we didn't get it because we didn't apply."

While the ministry did not clarify if it would fund any workshops like Harmony Movement's in the future, it said that "inclusive education connections" are already baked into several parts of its curriculum.

There's strong demand from schools for these types of workshops, especially after incidents like the Christchurch mosque attacks, according to Toronto-based writer and activist Sidrah Ahmad.

It's almost like people don't believe [Islamophobia] or want to think about it or address it unless there's some horrific massacre. Toronto writer and activist Sidrah Ahmad

This increase in hate crimes and a more "in-your-face form of Islamophobia" led her to develop a toolkit for educators and students called Rivers of Hope. It contains definitions and research on Islamophobia and anti-black racism, as well as stories and poetry from survivors of anti-Muslim violence.

Last year, Ahmad and other activists launched a collective to develop and facilitate free, interactive anti-Islamophobia workshops for high school students.

But Ahmad said she doesn't want to see demand for anti-Islamophobia education spike only after a tragedy.

"That's what we're trying to show people at these workshops, the everyday nature of [Islamophobia] and how this stuff is happening every day. People are being harassed, bullied in school ... this is all happening on a regular basis, but it's almost like people don't believe it or want to think about it or address it unless there's some horrific massacre."

Members of the Rivers of Hope collective develop and facilitate anti-Islamophobia workshops for high school students in the Greater Toronto Area.

Aima Warriach, a Muslim student who wears the niqab and hijab, helps facilitate the interactive workshops. She says Muslim students can experience "constant emotional labour" in schools and at times might feel pressured to justify or explain if any violence incidents happen to be carried out by a Muslim.

"What the Rivers of Hope kind of does is alleviate that type of labour from students and puts the responsibility on teachers educating themselves and other students educating themselves."

Rivers of Hope received a one-time grant last year from a non-profit to help develop its workshops and pay its facilitators an honourarium, Ahmad said.

The group is now fundraising to develop a new program aimed at elementary school students, but Ahmad said she wants to see the province take a more active role in funding anti-racism education programs.

"Ideally we shouldn't need to exist," Ahmad said. "All of this should be taken care of within the school. We're kind of like a Band-Aid coming in and being put on because there's a problem.."

Students from Maple High School in the York Region District School Board plan ways to make their school more inclusive at a workshop organized by Harmony Movement.

For Dib, Harmony Movement's work is essential because it can work as a proactive measure to fight against the "alienation" that led to the Christchurch shooting.

"We talk about [tragedies like Christchurch] and wish there's something [to do], and in fact there really is. We've been doing it. Our organization has been around 25 years. Last year alone we worked with 5,800 students and there's a real connection between education and attitude and behaviour," she said.

"What our programs are based on is [that] our ideas inform our attitudes and our attitudes inform our actions. If our ideas are based on stereotypes and biases, our attitudes are prejudiced and are our behaviours are discriminatory."

Harmony Movement is set to close on June 30.

Also On HuffPost: