By Tristin Hopper
TORONTO • What was advertised as a “discussion” on the issue of Muslim prayers at a Toronto school quickly turned into an emotionally charged speaker’s corner Monday night.
The prayers are conducted every Friday for about 45 minutes in the cafeteria of Valley Park Middle School. The measure was introduced as a matter of convenience since Muslim students — who make up 90% of the student body at the grades 6 to 8 school — were leaving class on Friday afternoons to walk to a nearby mosque.
The prayers are not conducted by a religious leader, but by the students themselves, the superintendent of inclusive schools for the Toronto District School Board told those in attendance at Monday’s meeting. It was held across the street from Valley Park, at Marc Garneau Collegiate on Overlea Boulevard.
“We have not heard one dissenting voice from within the school,” Jim Spyropoulos said.
Nevertheless, after the issue was made public during the summer, the 45-minute prayer session prompted protests outside district headquarters and letters trickled in “from across North America,” said Mr. Spyropoulos. “I don’t think there’s too many issues that have engendered the passion that this one has,” he said.
The meeting of about 40 to 50 people was meant as a community discussion, but some attendees were eager to talk about an anonymously printed pamphlet titled “Segregation in Toronto Public Schools” — a reference to the practice of separating boys and girls during prayer sessions.
Gender segregation did indeed dominate the two-hour meeting. One middle-aged woman said she was an alumnus of Valley Park and still kept up with Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends from her school days. “I want everybody to grow up together. I want accommodation, but I want those girls up front,” she said.
An older English woman who identified herself as an unwilling veteran of countless school-imposed Lord’s Prayers agreed. “I can’t stand by and watch girls be segregated in a public environment,” she said.
“The gender issue’s a tough one,” said Mr. Spyropoulos, but justified it by saying that the prayer group itself “does not happen under the auspices of the [school] board.”
Officials from the school board were in attendance to answer questions, but mostly they just kept order as speakers took turns making speeches. Several times, Manon Gardiner, chief academic officer for the TDSB, was forced to employ a well-refined teacher’s voice to tell attendees to refrain from “cross-talk.”
Few students from Valley Park were at the meeting, save for a row of girls in hijabs.
One of them, Anna, accused “outsiders” in the room of imposing their views on Valley Park students. “We’re angry because people are telling us what’s good for us … they think we’re stupid or weak and can’t decide for ourselves,” she said.
As for the controversial issue of menstruating girls being excluded from prayer sessions, she said “if you have cramps or backaches, you don’t want to pray.”
Anti-prayer speakers dominated the dialogue, but parents and community members in support of the practice reminded the crowd that the prayers are not mandatory.
“This is a program of choice … suggestions that we want to oppose our view on others is wrong,” said one man.