The Ontario ministers for education and child and youth services underlined their support for religious accommodation on Thursday, a day after a Peel District School Board meeting was disrupted by Islamophobic comments and pages being torn from a Qur'an.
Janet McDougald, chair of the Peel board, told CBC Toronto that a small but vocal group have been attending board meetings for the last two months "specifically to make it known they are against Muslim prayer in schools."
She said that police were forced to clear the meeting on Wednesday after some attendees shouted comments about Shariah law and the Islamic indoctrination of children.
In a statement released together, ministers Mitzie Hunter and Michael Coteau reaffirmed the importance of religious accommodation, decrying the fact that "hate continues to spread even in the most diverse regions of our province."
Debate in the fall 'raised the profile' of prayer accommodation
McDougald believes that the 20-year policy of allowing Muslim students to use school space for Friday prayers was brought into new focus following a debate in the Peel board over whether or not Muslim students should be allowed to write their own sermons.
"It raised the profile of the whole idea of religious accommodation in schools," she said.
Since then, McDougald explained, meetings have been disrupted and the board has contended with a "brutal" torrent of social media posts that she said are riddled with misinformation.
To combat that misinformation, the Peel District School Board released a fact sheet to battle the myths they say they've seen online, for example, that accommodating Muslim students is financially taxing or affects other student's learning.
A petition calling for the end of religious accommodation in Peel schools, with an emphasis on preventing Muslim students from using school space for Friday prayers, has attracted 5,758 signatures so far.
The petition, which was started by a group called Religion Out Of Public Schools, argues that accommodation is too expensive and could lead to "unintentional intolerance" and "unsolicited exposure to religion."
McDougald said their position is antithetical to that of the school board.
"We just won't tolerate [it]. It isn't the values that we pride ourselves on," she said.
Municipal and provincial leaders speak out
With Thursday's statement, Hunter and Coteau join other government leaders in speaking out against the tone of the conversation in Peel.
"Ontario schools are places that must be beacons of equity and inclusivity. All students must feel that they belong in school and that they feel safe when they are there," said Hunter at an appearance on Thursday.
Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey expressed similar sentiments earlier this month, publishing a letter in which she described being "troubled by the misinformation, fear mongering, and outright falsehoods being spread by some."
As for McDougald, she said she hopes that "this too shall pass," comparing the situation to the fierce debate around the new sexual education curriculum in Peel that eventually subsided.
To get there, though, "we're going to have to work at this for awhile," she said.