At a time when progressive sex education and gay-rights clubs are becoming an increasing part of the secular curriculum, many devout families in the country's most populous province are looking for a faith-based approach to learning. In Ontario, however, the only publicly funded faith-based option is Catholic schools – and that's just fine for some Muslim parents, even if it's someone else's faith.
For Seid Oumer, an observant Muslim and a father of four from Ethiopia, Catholic education has a lot going for it. He sells the other Muslim parents on the benefits of uniforms, discipline and the faith-based approach.
Mr. Oumer's 16-year-old daughter, Daliya, has been attending Catholic religion classes at Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., for two years.
"I find it very interesting, I like getting an idea of how our religions are very similar," she said.
Ms. Oumer feels comfortable using the chapel whenever she needs to pray. The only time she feels a little awkward is on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter or Remembrance Day, when the school attends Mass, and she's left alone in a pew while her classmates line up to take the Holy Eucharist.
"They suggest that non-Catholics go up for a blessing, but I don't know, I don't want to do that," she said. "So I sit down and everyone's like, 'Why aren't you going up?' I tell them I just don't want to."
Though at least one parent must be Catholic in order for a student to enroll in a Catholic elementary school, at the high-school level faith doesn't matter as long as there's room. Declining high school enrolment has meant that there often is room – about 10 per cent of the pupils attending Catholic boards in the Greater Toronto Area are non-Catholic.
Shared Abrahamic traditions and an emphasis on modest dress help make Muslim students feel at home at Catholic schools. Over the past decade, there is anecdotal evidence that more and more of them have been taking advantage of the fact that at the secondary level, Catholic schools are open to any local family who wishes to register, be they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Rastafarian.
In the Catholic board, religious accommodation hasn't ignited controversy like it has at the Toronto District School Board.
This spring, when it became widely known that a Toronto middle school was allowing an imam to lead prayer sessions in the school cafeteria on Fridays, critics including Jewish, Hindu and secular groups accused the school of taking accommodation too far, saying such services were inappropriate during class time. This summer, they rallied outside that board's headquarters protesting "the mosqueteria."
One of the reasons Muslims students attend Catholic schools is because many Canadian Muslims are recent immigrants from East Africa and South Asia where "often, the best schools are the ones run by nuns," said Shafique Virani, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto. "That image may have remained from when they were back home."
So far, no one has tried to quantify the trend or study the reasons behind it, he said.
Mr. Oumer said he is grateful that in Catholic schools his children will be taught a conservative approach to reproductive biology, sex education and same-sex relations.
Sometimes the local Catholic school does have a better reputation or higher standardized test scores than its secular counterpart.
That's what prompted Saadia Sediqzadah to ask her parents if she could attend Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ont., east of Toronto.
She says her father was worried she might convert, but that his biggest concern was that she might face discrimination or bullying at her new school.
"He said it was okay if I didn't tell anyone I was Muslim," she said. "But I decided I had to be up front and I went around to everyone and told them, 'Hi my name is Saadia, I'm Afghan and I'm Muslim.' "
The fall of her Grade 9 year, Ms. Sediqzadah said there were only a few Muslims at her school, but by the time she graduated, in 2006, there were close to 40.
"It's word of mouth, parents talking to other parents," she said. "Often families are related or from the same community and they're telling each other good things about the Catholic schools."