Some school boards in the Greater Toronto Area allow students to be exempted from classes based on religious beliefs, including music and art – but only as a last resort and after failing to reach a compromise with parents.
The issue of allowing children to withdraw from classes flared up at Canada's largest school board after a group of Muslim parents were offered an accommodation, not a full exemption, from music class at their Scarborough elementary school.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal a bitter three-year battle between the Toronto District School Board and a group of parents, who said that having their children attend music class violated their Muslim faith. But music is a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum and the school board suggested students could just clap their hands instead of playing instruments or listen to a cappella versions of O Canada.
"We don't exempt students. We provide accommodation to the best of our ability," said Jim Spyropoulos, the school board's executive superintendent of engagement and well-being. "Obviously, parents have choices to make with respect to their child's attendance in any type of programming. But it isn't our practice to exempt students."
The school board's policy is not consistent with those of other school boards across the Greater Toronto Area. Its neighbouring board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board, allows for exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
Licinio Miguelo, a spokesman for the York Region District School Board, said his board also grants exemptions. When a request is made to exempt a child from a class on religious grounds, the principal will first speak with the parents to see what steps can be taken to accommodate the student, he said.
"In many cases, such a conversation resolves the request," Mr. Miguelo said. "If one cannot be found, then an exemption may be provided if necessary."
Brian Woodland, a spokesman at the Peel District School Board, noted that his school district will not provide religious accommodation or exemption to students from lessons that revolve around different kinds of families, including same-sex couples and transgender parents.
Mr. Woodland said the board does not grant many exemptions, because the principal and parents are generally able to find a way to accommodate the student. The board will also involve religious leaders, if necessary. An accommodation in art class may mean that the student draws shapes, instead of human figures, for example. In gym, schools can accommodate students by allowing them to wear exercise clothes appropriate to their religion.
"We want to do everything we can to help the student be part of the program," Mr. Woodland said. "If we've gone through every possible process and there is no way to accommodate, then our operating procedure says we will offer religious accommodation as full withdrawal." The exemption is highlighted in a student's report card.
The Durham District School Board is in step with the TDSB in only offering accommodations, not a full exemption, in subject areas.
At the TDSB, parents at Donwood Park Public School in Scarborough insisted that they could not allow their children to be in the same room where musical instruments were being played. They got the leader of the mosque involved in their fight to exempt their children from music class.
"We here believe that music is haram [forbidden]. We can neither listen to it, nor can we play a role in it," said the mosque's imam, Kasim Ingar.
The documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request showed that the issue first surfaced in 2013. At one point, a petition was signed by more than 130 parents, and by the spring of 2015, an interest group known as the National Council of Canadian Muslims got involved on behalf of the parents.
Within Islam, the question of whether Muslims are banned from music is divisive and nuanced.
It is unclear how the situation was resolved at Donwood, but at least one parent kept his children home for the hour music was taught at the school. Officials at the TDSB expect the issue will come up at the school again this academic year.
With reports from Colin Freeze and Mahnoor Yawar