One reason that Canada's experiment with multiculturalism is succeeding is that no one tells newcomers to abandon their beliefs or way of life. We don't demand that they embrace the mainstream. We don't expect them to adopt Canadian habits overnight. As long as they obey the law and pay their taxes, they are free to dress, act, eat and pray however they choose.
You won't find cops roaming the beaches, as they have in France, telling women to take off their burkinis and bare their flesh in the name of secular values. Schools don't mind if girls cover their hair. Women don't risk being stopped for wearing a burka in public. Schools strive to make allowances for kids from families with conservative religious backgrounds. It's live and let live.
But even in this tolerant country, there is a limit. A Toronto father crossed the line when he demanded that his kids be exempted from music class because, under his interpretation of Islam, all music is haram – forbidden.
When The Globe and Mail investigated what happened at Donwood Park elementary school, it found that education authorities had been grappling with the issue since 2013. In the name of reasonable accommodation, they bent over backward to placate parents who wanted their kids let out of music. They even suggested that students could clap their hands instead of playing instruments, or just listen to O Canada being sung. It wasn't enough. Even listening to music being played was out. The father, who said his views are representative of other parents at the school, wanted his kids to be allowed to stay away from music class altogether.
Authorities said no. Though they were willing to compromise, they could not exempt students from a mandatory part of the curriculum.
It was the right call. If schools start letting kids skip classes because their parents object to the subject matter, where does it stop? Would some be let out of gym because their parents didn't want them seeing the opposite sex in exercise gear? Could they be kept out of drama because their parents didn't like the plays, or out of library because their parents didn't like the books? What if the history teacher's view of world events didn't match the parents' politics? As it is, some school boards give exemptions on religious grounds. When they exempt some students, it becomes hard to deny others.
The Toronto school board is already dealing with a revolt from parents, both Christian and Muslim, who object to an updated sex-education curriculum. Here, too, the board tried to be flexible without watering down what is taught. Here, too, there is only so far authorities can, or should, go to be accommodating. Sex education is important for public health. It has been a subject in Canadian schools for many years.
If parents object to what is being taught in the public schools, they can always pull their kids out and educate them at home or in a religious or private school. But within the public schools, everyone is in the same boat. That is a good thing. In fact, it is vital to Canada's future.
Canadian schools are the engine of integration. It is where children of every culture, race and religion learn to get along with each other. It is where they learn to be Canadian. That doesn't mean they must become cookie-cutter Canucks. It does mean that they learn together, side by side, and absorb a common body of knowledge.
The curriculum is not a pick-and-choose smorgasbord. Educators have to make sure that, whatever their background, students emerge from school with a basic set of skills, from the ABCs to the Do Re Mis.
Music rooms have echoed to the singing of scales and bowing of violins for generations. Music is taught in Canadian schools. Everyone learns it. That is something fathers such as this one must simply come to accept.