Keith Leslie, Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 17
TORONTO — Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty encouraged Muslim parents Wednesday to allow their children to attend public school classes that include teaching tolerance of gays and lesbians.
McGuinty and Education Minister Gerard Kennedy both reached out to Muslim parents who are upset about what the Toronto District School Board calls “anti-homophobia education” at a downtown school.
“I think it’s important that all our children have the opportunity to learn about those things that distinguish one of us from the other, and that they learn to respect those differences,” McGuinty said.
“I think the kind of society that we should all aspire to is one where we respect each other’s differences.”
Controversy erupted after students at Market Lane Public School were shown videos that depicted the feelings of children who get taunted at school because their own parents are homosexuals.
Angry Muslim parents complained that their religious beliefs were getting less respect from the board than gay rights and demanded that their children be excluded on religious grounds from similar presentations in the future.
The board rejected their request Tuesday night on the grounds that allowing some students to be excluded from discussions about gay families would violate the rights of those children with same-sex parents.
“Ultimately, our civil values include respect for sexual orientation,” Kennedy said before a cabinet meeting Wednesday.
“I don’t think there’s any harm done to parents who find their children exposed to ideas that are different than the ones they teach at home.”
Canadian Islamic Congress president Mohamed Elmasry said it’s not just Muslim parents that are concerned because students are learning lessons about family values that differ from what they might learn at home.
“Teaching tolerance at a young age is a must,” said Elmasry, who’s also a professor at the University of Waterloo. “But you have to balance that with the appearance that you are not promoting certain values, in this case homosexual families.”
Elmasry has himself been at the centre of controversy after suggesting in an interview that all Israelis over the age of 18 were legitimate targets for Palestinian militants — comments for which he has since apologized.
Conservative Leader John Tory said parents ought to have been told about the videos ahead of time. He said there are ways to ensure everyone gets the message of tolerance without running afoul of anyone’s religious beliefs.
“We should be able to find ways to teach that kind of mutual respect for one another without forcing people to feel they’re in a position where they have to take their children out,” Tory said.
Kennedy said schools have always been good at teaching diversity and must continue to play a major role in building a tolerant, multi-cultural society.
“I would like to encourage parents not to undermine that.”
Ontario’s New Democrats echoed the government’s position.
“I believe that human rights come above religious rights,” said NDP critic Michael Prue.
“I would hope Muslim parents would understand that they have chosen to move to a pluralistic society, and it goes along that that we have respect for everyone, including them.”
Kennedy urged the board to work with the Muslim parents to address their concerns, noting that it’s vitally important for all children to learn that some of their friends may have parents who are homosexuals.
“There are ways to teach respect that may not be offensive and still essentially accomplish the objective,” he said.
“But respect is something we’re not prepared to stand down on. . .and our schools are an important place of learning it.”