CANADA

A holy war over holidays

A lawsuit launched by Ottawa Muslims could set a precedent for public schools

LUKE FISHER September 12 1994
CANADA

A holy war over holidays

A lawsuit launched by Ottawa Muslims could set a precedent for public schools

LUKE FISHER September 12 1994

A holy war over holidays

A lawsuit launched by Ottawa Muslims could set a precedent for public schools

CANADA

Like millions of other young Canadians, 14-year-old Aysha Bassuny returns to school this week. But the Ottawa Board of Education has delayed the start of her school year for two days so that Jewish students can observe the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah. Bassuny is one of many in Ottawa’s Islamic community who are angry that the board has refused to consider extending them a similar courtesy by closing schools for two Muslim holy days. “It’s not fair,” says Bassuny, a Grade 10 student at suburban Brookfield High School, who wears the traditional Islamic head scarf, the hijab.

“I have to miss school for my holy days and the Jewish kids don’t. You cannot have it for one group and not the other.”

The Islamic Schools Federation of Ontario, which represents independent Muslim schools, agrees with the irate teenager. In July, the federation launched a lawsuit against the Ottawa Board of Education alleging that the rights of Muslims to freedom of conscience and religion under the Charter of Rights have been undermined by the board’s actions. The lawsuit, which is scheduled to be heard on Oct. 25 by the Ontario Court General Division, argues that schools with significant numbers of Muslim students—according to the federation, there are 2,250 students of Muslim faith in Ottawa’s public ^ schools, compared with about 410 §

Jews—should be required to observe £ two important Islamic holidays. 1 Whatever the lower court decides, its ruling is expected to be appealed, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In that event, the Ottawa case could eventually determine whether the Charter forces public school boards across Canada to treat all religions identically.

The dispute began in April, when the Ottawa board agreed to what seemed at the time to be a modest request from Ottawa’s Jewish community—to delay the start of the school year so that Jewish students could observe Rosh Hashanah without missing the the crucial first two days of school (until now, only the Christian holidays of Christmas and Good Friday have been observed by public schools, meaning that students of other religions have been forced to miss a day of school in order to observe their own holy days). According to Jewish community leader Ron Singer, the request was entirely reasonable, because it did not mean a perma-

nent change in the school year: the Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, and Rosh Hashanah coincides with the opening of school only once every 40 years. Observes Singer: “This is an extremely rare occurrence that happens twice in a century.” It may have seemed reasonable to Singer, but not to Ottawa’s 18,000-strong Muslim community, which threatened legal action unless the decision was reversed or Muslims accommodated by the closing of schools on two of their holy days: March 3, the end of Ramadan, and May 11, which coincides with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Seven other public boards in Ontario agreed to delay the school year, although the neighboring Carleton board did not. The Islamic federation chose Ottawa as a test case, believing that a victory there would set a precedent all across the country.

Certainly social tensions created by a newly assertive Muslim community is not a problem limited to Ottawa. Since the Second World War, the explosion of immigration from such countries as Lebanon, Syria and northern India has pushed Canada’s Muslim population to almost 300,000, with an unprecedented 158-per-cent increase between 1981 and 1991. “They now have the good old-fashioned clout of numbers,” says Earle Waugh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Alberta. He predicts that, like other minority communities, Muslims will increasingly use the Charter to fight

court battles over school issues, such as the content of history textbooks or the treatment of Middle East politics.

Emilio Binavince, lawyer for the Federation of Islamic Schools of Ontario, said last week that the issue is simply one of equity. He rejected arguments by Jewish groups that their request for a one-time delay to the school year was far less than the Muslim demand for two new permanent school holidays each year. “The issue,” Binavince said, “is the recognition of two religions, Christian and Jewish, and the rejection of another, Muslim.”

But Singer says the goals of Ottawa Muslims are not so clear-cut: “If they just wanted holidays for themselves, it’s legitimate. But to threaten legal action unless the holiday is taken away from the Jews....” He leaves the sentence deliberately hanging. For his part, Ted Best, a school board member for 22 years, is fed up with the rivalry between the two communities. “We’re fighting the Middle East over here,” he says. Those involved in the dispute recognize that, if taken to its logical extreme, the rapid growth of Canada’s Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh communities could lead to a school year with as many as 15 religious holidays. On reflection, even Bassuny concedes that “it’s a tough problem.” And one that an increasingly multicultural society will be unable to avoid.

LUKE FISHER