[Editor’s note: Thank you to several readers for asking me to write an article on this subject several months ago. I have a tremendous backlog and though the incident discussed herein occurred last February, the discussion is still relevant today]
According to media reports from February 2011, a dozen Muslim families who had recently arrived in Canada told Winnipeg’s Louis Riel School Division that they want their children excused from compulsory elementary school music and co-ed physical education programs for religious and cultural reasons.
Music and phys-ed are compulsory in the province’s elementary schools.
The families accept physical education, as long as the boys and girls have separate classes, but do not want their children exposed to singing or the playing musical instruments. The school division suggested they could instead do a writing project to satisfy the music requirements of the arts curriculum.
Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services told the National Post that in her view there is no problem with elementary-school children taking coed phys-ed, at least “not with little kids under the age of puberty.”
She said when some middle-school and high-school students have asked not to mix genders, they have been accommodated by schools.
According to the National Post, Siddiqui said that music can be an issue for a minority of Muslims.
“Music is controversial in our community; this is a North American phenomenon,” she said. “There is a minority view that music is forbidden. (That view) is not accepted by the majority,” she said.
The school division will also have to consider these issues when the children enter junior high or high school. Music is optional beyond Grade 6, but phys-ed is coed right through Grade 12.
When asked by the Winnipeg Jewish Review to comment about this case, David Matas, human rights lawyer and senior legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada said “ B'nai Brith has not developed a position on this specific issue. My own view is that the touchstone should be the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a party. That Convention provides that in any action concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. That Convention also provides that states parties shall respect the rights of parents to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right to freedom of religion. Where the two conflict, then, as the Convention states, the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration. While I recognize that removing children from music and co-ed physical education is the expression of a right to freedom of religion, in my view, this removal would not be done in the best interests of the children involved. So the schools should not allow it to happen.”
In an article in the Sun media, conservative pundit Ezra Levant sided against the demands of the Muslim Families suggesting he disagreed with the ruling by an Ontario Court of Appeal that “ Muslim women can ask for a court order to clear men out of a courtroom - court staff, lawyers, even the judge -before taking off their veils to testify.”
Levant advocates “promoting Canadian values” otherwise Canada will look like the United Kingdom.