When the principal at Valley Park Middle School allowed 400 Muslim students to pray in the lunchroom, he thought he was being progressive. What he got was a scandal—over the preaching of conservative Islam and the separation of girls from boys—that’s testing the TDSB’s policy of religious accomodation
(Image: John Goddard)
Valley Park Middle School, at Don Mills and Overlea, is much like any other TDSB facility in the inner suburbs—an unremarkable rectangle of grey, concrete blocks, plus 11 portables in the back field. It’s also one of Canada’s largest and most ethnically diverse middle schools, with approximately 1,200 students in grades 6 to 8, whose native languages include Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Bengali and Punjabi. The neighbouring streets consist mostly of strip malls and huge apartment complexes that accommodate many of the Muslim immigrants from South Asia who arrived in Toronto in large numbers in the 1990s.
A kilometre and a half away, amid the fast-food chains and electronics repair shops, is the neighbourhood’s mosque—the Darus Salaam. If you were walking by it in a hurry, you might not even realize it’s a mosque. There’s no minaret, nothing distinctive about the building; it’s just another nondescript box that disappears into the industrial landscape. The mosque is orthodox Sunni and adheres to a strict, conservative interpretation of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. It is also a madrassa—a religious place of learning—for many of the children who attend Valley Park.
The majority of the students at Valley Park—more than 800 kids—are Muslims. Until 2008, several hundred of the students would leave school every Friday to attend midday prayers at the mosque. The prayer itself took only 15 to 20 minutes, but the kids wouldn’t return to school for two or three hours, if they bothered to at all. Some simply headed to a shopping mall or home to play video games. The school’s administration needed a solution.
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