Toronto school board's vote on caste oppression in public education sparks controversy

'The issue has stirred up deep divisions among South Asian Communities with critics fearing that such moves may exacerbate existing discord.'
Toronto school board's vote on caste oppression in public education sparks controversy
Pic- social media

The Toronto District School Board, which is the largest school board in Canada, has voted to request the Ontario Human Rights Commission to devise a plan aimed at tackling caste-based discrimination in the public education system. The motion pertaining to the caste system, which is a customary practice in South Asia of determining an individual's social standing at birth, was put forward by trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam and was passed during a meeting on 8th March.

The issue of caste oppression has stirred up deep divisions among South Asian communities, with some supporters hailing it as a groundbreaking move while critics fear it may exacerbate existing discord. The Toronto District School Board voted 16-to-5 in favour of requesting the Ontario Human Rights Commission to "assess and provide a framework for addressing caste oppression" in public education, marking a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle against caste-based discrimination.

During the meeting, Trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam, hailing the motion as historic, asserted that caste oppression affects various communities across Ontario, citing numerous and grave cases of caste inequity. Trustee Anu Sriskandarajah, who worked on the issue alongside Rajakulasingam, echoed the sentiment, underlining the need to create a safer learning environment for all students, especially those marginalized by caste oppression.

Toronto District School Board
Toronto District School BoardPic- social media

SADAN'S Efforts Meet Success

Credits are being given to SADAN (South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network) which had strongly petitioned the TDSB to formally recognize caste discrimination in its policies and commit to working towards caste equity.

Speaking to The Mooknayak, Chinnaiah Jangam, the Co-founder of SADAN expressed immense happiness on the move. Jangam said, "Sadan is thrilled by the passage of the historic motion to recognize caste oppression by the TSDB. Despite facing violence, insinuations, gaslighting and bigotry the majority of the trustees stood with Dalit children and families who came forward with courage to share stories of grave discrimination and in doing so we turned pain into power". Jangam, an Associate Professor of History at Carleton University further added, that they appreciate so much the trustees who took the time to listen to the Dalit community.

"We want to heal from caste, and cultural sensitive education that acknowledges caste discrimination is the first step to a larger process of reconciliation. We thank the TDSB for taking this courage step and flanking all South Asian students who are suffering from this violence and we look forward to partnering with the Ontario Human Rights Commission as we bring forth the issue of caste across the province in Ontario. We also extend empathy to our opponents we understand they find equity uncomfortable but we hope they listen to our stories with an open heart and join us as we move to heal all of community from caste" the teacher said.

Vijay Puli, the executive director of the SADAN expressed his support for the motion, emphasizing that caste discrimination remains rampant in schools, with Dalit and caste-oppressed students enduring bullying, casteist slurs, and even losing friends due to their identity. Puli hopes that the OHRC's input will pave the way for the provincial recognition of caste as a protected category from discrimination in all sectors and labour unions.

Mixed responses

However, the motion had received mixed reactions from the public. While some activists, teachers, and social justice advocates threw their support behind the motion, a group of demonstrators gathered outside the TDSB office to protest the motion, holding up signs that read "Stop Ethnic Profiling of South Asians" and "No More Division. No More Hate."

TDSB Trustee Alexis Dawson said during Wednesday's meeting that caste discrimination has “become a global menace” as South Asians and other ethnicities with caste systems migrate around the world.

While the revised motion won the support of some trustees, not all were in favour, including Trustees Pei, Dennis Hastings of Ward 1 (Etobicoke North), James Li of Ward 13 (Don Valley North), Patrick Nunziata of Ward 3 (Etobicoke-Lakeshore), and Zakir Patel of Ward 19 (Scarborough - Guildwood).

Trustee Weidong Pei of Ward 12 (Willowdale) argued that there was no data to support a "needless and divisive motion."

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Why referred to Human Rights Commission?

The motion's original version, presented last month, involved a working group of Dalit and caste-oppressed individuals who would define caste-based discrimination and develop teaching materials on the issue, with the TDSB including caste as a protected category from discrimination, similar to race, gender, and ability. And, the TDSB would have included caste as a protected category from discrimination, similar to race, gender and ability.

But some trustees were uneasy because they didn’t know enough about the burning issue, which had obviously struck a chord with many community members because their inboxes were flooded with thousands of emails, both in support and opposition. TDSB staff also said they didn’t have the capacity, training or understanding to implement the original motion. So it was amended to seek input from the OHRC, explained Sriskandarajah of Ward 22 (Scarborough - Rouge Park) saying “the board doesn’t want to get it wrong.”

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Support from Justice For All Canada

Taha Ghayyur, Executive Director of Justice For All Canada also endorsed the motion. Taha said in a statement that caste discrimination exists in Canada’s South Asian diaspora, including education systems. Dalit and caste-oppressed students, staff, and families actively experience casteism in public schools. According to students with lived experiences, caste violence is experienced in the classroom, school hallways, playgrounds, parent-teacher meetings and TDSB celebrations. Justice For All Canada argues that students shouldn’t face this discrimination.

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Caste Impacting Canadian Students

In the TDSB, 22% of students identify as South Asian – the second largest demographic group on the board.

Caste oppression impacts caste-oppressed descent students from South Asia who call Toronto home, including students from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

Past efforts against Caste Discrimination

The Seattle City Council in February added caste to the city's anti-discrimination laws and became the first in the world to pass such a law outside South Asia.

The University of California, Davis, also recently added caste to its anti-discrimination policy after students said they have seen discrimination take place on campus.

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