Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
In the last week, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has offered the public a rare glimpse into the way it thinks – or, rather, how it fails to think.
For the past four years, Canada’s largest school board has partnered with Tanya Lee, a Toronto mother and entrepreneur who runs a book club for teenaged girls called A Room Of Your Own, which is rooted in her conviction that reading and open conversation can empower young women, as it did for her. Ms. Lee makes a point of targeting the club to schools in high-priority neighbourhoods, and emphasizes its inclusive, positive atmosphere.
What began in 2017 as a gathering of 15 teenaged girls in the basement of the Lillian H. Smith Library in downtown Toronto has grown into an online monthly meeting of more than 60 teens. Ms. Lee, in consultation with club members, selects books and arranges for authors to attend.
To date, the TDSB has supported Ms. Lee’s club by distributing books to participating students, discussing them in class and allowing club members to take a day off school to attend (back when in-person meetings were still possible). But that support ended last month, when Ms. Lee was informed by Helen Fisher, a TDSB superintendent, that the board would not be promoting two of the books Ms. Lee had selected for upcoming meetings.
Those books: Marie Henein’s Nothing But the Truth: A Memoir and Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State.
Ms. Fisher explained to Ms. Lee that the board’s equity department found the first book problematic because its author, one of Canada’s top criminal defence lawyers, had defended former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi against charges of sexual assault. Ms. Lee says Ms. Fisher also told her that Ms. Murad’s book could foster Islamophobia.
It’s one thing to be ignorant. It’s another to be ignorant and powerful – and in the business of education.
Ms. Henein, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants, has risen to the top of the legal profession in this country. Her career is remarkable, as is her ability to communicate. I once risked my car’s battery, sitting in a parking lot, listening to her explain in a CBC Radio interview the centrality of the defence to the very architecture of the justice system, even for the most heinous crimes.
Ms. Murad was 19 when Islamic State terrorists invaded her village in northern Iraq to commit genocide on her people and to enslave her and thousands of other young Yazidi women. Having escaped captivity, she fled to Germany, testified before the United Nations Security Council, became a UN ambassador on human trafficking, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
These extraordinary accomplishments do not seem to have registered with the TDSB. What did, apparently, is the idea that Ms. Henein betrayed women by defending Mr. Ghomeshi – unforgivable in a climate of #MeToo solidarity – and that the offending extremists in Ms. Murad’s lived experience were Muslim. Only through such gross misreadings – one in which Ms. Henein is conflated with her client, and another in which a group called the Islamic State somehow represents the Islamic faith – can these books be seen as offensive to TDSB sensibilities.
The board has made equity a big part of its brand. According to its own policy statement, the TDSB has made “a bold commitment to equity, human rights, anti-racism and anti-oppression.” The power brokers at the TDSB should be reminded of that bold commitment, lest they be lulled into believing that equity is achieved simply through Kwanzaa celebrations, gender-neutral toilets and Chromebooks for all.
When this incident was first reported by The Globe and Mail, the TDSB backpedalled. Ms. Fisher was no longer available for comment. TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told this paper that “there appears to have been a misunderstanding” since staff had not even read the books. In reference to Ms. Henein’s memoir, Mr. Bird offered up what was intended as reassurance: “It’s important to note that this is not about the author, who is a renowned Canadian lawyer.”
However, this case seems to be very much about the authors – women who have done extraordinary things, and whose lives could offer high-octane inspiration to young readers. The rejection of their books is effectively a rejection of complexity, and of the world as it is. It reflects an attitude that is anti-learning and anti-curious – an attitude that has no place in education.
One can only hope that this little firestorm has brought more attention to these books, their authors and a little book club that could – and that it will give Toronto’s school board an opportunity to review its mandate.
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