The organizer of a book club for teenage girls says she was told students from the Toronto District School Board would not attend one of her events because the featured author, lawyer Marie Henein, had defended Jian Ghomeshi on sexual-assault charges.
The board now says that was a misunderstanding.
A Room of Your Own Book Club invites teenage girls, many of whom come from low-income families, to read a text and then discuss it in a virtual space with the author. School principals and teachers promote the events to their students.
Tanya Lee, who has organized the book club for about four years, said she was told in late October by the school board superintendent she deals with that TDSB schools would not promote this month’s event with Ms. Henein. Ms. Lee said she was told the school board’s equity department felt the lawyer would send the wrong message.
“They told me straight out ‘no’ because [Ms. Henein] defended Jian Ghomeshi and how do you explain that to little girls,” Ms. Lee said.
The superintendent, Helen Fisher, also told her that students would not participate in a book-club event scheduled for February with Nadia Murad, a Nobel Prize-winner and activist, Ms. Lee said. She said she was told Ms. Murad’s book, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, would foster Islamophobia.
After that conversation, Ms. Lee said she sent an e-mail to Ms. Fisher with information about Islamic State from the BBC and CNN.
“This is what Islamic State means,” Ms. Lee wrote to the superintendent. “It is a terrorist organization. It has nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. The TDSB should be aware of the difference.”
The next day, Ms. Lee said, Ms. Fisher sent her a copy of the board’s policy on selecting equitable, culturally relevant and responsive reading materials.
In response to a request for comment from The Globe and Mail, Ms. Fisher said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird had responded for her.
Mr. Bird said that after speaking with staff, “there appears to have been a misunderstanding, as the equity department does not review and approve books for book clubs.”
Mr. Bird said in an e-mail on Thursday that both books are being reviewed by board staff, as is standard practice for books being distributed to students in TDSB schools, “and we hope to be in a position to approve in the near future.”
Meanwhile, he said the TDSB has paused bringing external speakers to its schools or promoting them to students while it develops a protocol on such events, which he anticipated would be finalized within the next two weeks.
“It’s important to note that this is not about the author, who is a renowned Canadian lawyer and who students could benefit from by hearing her story,” Mr. Bird said.
The TDSB does not operate the book club, and the event happens outside school property. However, Ms. Lee said she discusses expectations with teachers and principals. She said the board has never rejected a book or author used by her book club until now.
Ms. Lee said the club is for girls aged 13 to 18, but she limited the events with Ms. Henein and Ms. Murad to high school age.
Ms. Lee said the book-club event with Ms. Henein will go ahead next week with about 100 students from Owen Sound and London. Ms. Henein donated 200 books to the club. Ms. Lee said about half are in her aunt’s front hall, awaiting distribution to TDSB students.
In an e-mail on Thursday, Ms. Henein said the event is intended to be a conversation with the students about her book and her life experience. She said Ms. Lee informed her the TDSB withdrew its support “as a result of my participation.”
“There are words for this. Misunderstanding is not one of them,” she said.
With a report from Sean Fine
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