Staff with the Peel District School Board in southern Ontario are being cautioned to be "extra vigilant" about a video making the rounds online offering a $1,000 reward for recordings of Muslim students in any school in the region "spewing hate speech during Friday prayers."
The nearly 3½-minute video was posted to YouTube on March 29 by Kevin J. Johnston of the online publication Freedom Report, which bills itself as "Canada's best and most honest news outlet." Johnston previously faced off against Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie in an attempt to stop the development of the Meadowvale Islamic Centre.
To receive the cash, Johnston explains, the video must identify the student by face and name and be submitted within 24 hours of being filmed. The video must contain hate speech, which he says will be found through a team of translators, and the rights for the video must be turned over to Johnston. If the submission fits the criteria, he promises to let the recipient wear a mask while receiving his or her reward.
Johnston told CBC News his motivation for video submissions is due to his personal belief that public schools are "supposed to be secular — we want our schools to focus on education only."
Prayers in school not new
In response to the video, the Peel District School Board, which serves Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, issued a memo to its administrators, reminding them that personal [recording] devices can only be used in schools for educational purposes, as directed by staff.
"It is important that you make staff who supervise Friday prayer at your school aware of this challenge and ask them to be extra vigilant in their supervision and that this invasion of privacy is not appropriate," states the memo, sent to CBC Toronto by the board's director of communications, Brian Woodland.
Muslim students have observed congregational prayers, known as jumu'ah, inside Peel schools in some form for close to 20 years. But the issue has been a flashpoint since September, when the board sought to review whether students should be allowed to write their own sermons or instead be required to use one of six pre-written sermons.
In January, students were given the green light to continue with the previously existing policy, with prayers being supervised by a staff member. The sermons are delivered in English, except for verses quoted directly from the Qur'an, and would continue to be supervised by a staff member, according to the updated policy.
Incentive to break privacy laws, board says
Johnston alleges that would allow hate speech, specifically anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish sentiment, to go unchecked by staff who understand Arabic and identify as Muslim. He added that he does not have any evidence of students who have engaged in hate speech.
Ibrahim Hindy, an imam who helped to develop the current policy, says those fears are unfounded, that non-Muslim teachers supervise prayers in many schools and that all teachers, non-Muslim and Muslim alike, are bound by a code of ethics.
"Every teacher has ethics that they need to follow as teachers," he said. "They have to, if they hear something anti-Semitic or bigoted in the hallways of the school, in the playground of the school, even if it's in a Friday prayer, they have to step forward, they have to discipline that child."
In an email, board spokesperson Woodland said the offer in the video tries to provide an incentive for students to breach privacy laws.
That's a concern Hindy said several students have raised with him.
"This is driving a ton of anxiety and causing a lot of the students to feel really threatened in their school in the place that's supposed to be really safe for them, a place where they can learn, a place where they can be open … and instead of that it's kind of putting a target on them.
Police are investigating
"If they take the videos of students and they try to ascribe something to them, throw it out on the internet, what's going to happen? Are these students going to be attacked like what happened in Quebec City? Are schools going to be under attack? It's incredibly irresponsible. It's unconscionable."
In the video, Johnston urges people to conceal cameras to get footage to him. "Whatever it takes, get that to me," he says.
"I am offering $1,000 of my own money, cash reward, for any of you out there that can sneak a camera into one of these mosque-eterias or mosque-stages or mosque-gymnasiums and get me the footage."
Peel police confirm that they are investigating — and while it's too soon to tell if the video has any criminal element, they aren't ruling out the possibility.
"We are treating these incidents very seriously and have allocated the appropriate resources as required," police said in a statement.
For the board's part, Woodland said it will not provide further comment on Johnston, saying doing so "simply provides him with attention for his campaign.
"In fact if you do a story, it will achieve that goal of his," he added.
Hindy says to some extent he shares that feeling.
"But I think that these groups are gaining momentum, so there's definitely a responsibility that we have to confront them openly so that people can see the depravity and how low they're willing to go in spreading their hatred that they don't even care about targeting students."
Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a researcher on immigration and racism at Hamilton's McMaster University and spokesperson for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, agrees a frank conversation is necessary.
"In a way I do feel like it's important that this person's views were expressed in a way where he wasn't hiding behind a keyboard. We have a lot of political correctness in Canada and that's why we kind of have this illusion of Canada being this elite and tolerant and perfect place."
"If you look at the most recent M-103 fiasco that we had, so many people thought that Islamophobia didn't need to be included because it's not a thing. Well this is a perfect example of it being a thing.
"I personally believe that it's very important to bring these stories to light, so that more people can understand that we do have a problem. Because until we know that a problem exists, we can't challenge these views, we can't confront them, we can't address them. They just get swept under the rug, unfortunately."