Monika Sidhu: Executive From Canada India Foundation Attempts To Censor Classrooms Discussing The Farmers’ Protest
While Michalska and other teachers have been able to bring up the Farmers’ Protest in class without any issues or pushback from parents, that has not been the case with all parents across the GTA
March 31, 2021 | 6 min. read
Meara Michalska remembers when a student of hers mentioned the Farmers’ Protest in class last November, early in the movement. The Peel District School Board (PDSB) teacher decided she would ask her class if they would like to discuss the protest. Some responded yes, some responded no, but she figured a few of them saying yes was reason enough to explore the topic.
“I said, okay well if some people want to talk about it I think probably we should make sure everyone has an understanding of it,” says Michalska.
She went on to do some of her own research and get a better understanding of what she would be speaking about and she quickly grew a connection to the cause when reflecting on the Ontario teacher protests that she was part of in February of 2020.
“I think it would have kept going had we not gone into COVID [lockdown] because we were fighting for some really important things and it’s hard convincing people to give up pay and to go out when the weather conditions aren’t great and convincing them it is for something far more powerful and for the greater good,” says Michalska.
“So, on a really personal level, when I saw what the Farmers’ Protest was accomplishing, I was filled with so much pride.”
It is one of the reasons Michalska has already spoken to her class about the protest which has been ongoing since November and has surpassed 100 days.
While Michalska and other teachers have been able to bring up the Farmers’ Protest in class without any issues or pushback from parents, that has not been the case with all parents across the GTA.
A petition started on change.org by Ritesh Malik has been circulating for three weeks and is raising concerns around teachers who are discussing the Farmers’ Protest. The petition which is addressed to Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce has been signed over 2,800 times.
Some of the signatories left behind their reasoning for lending their name to the petition, including Chintan Patel who said, “Education should not be influenced by ongoing current affairs”, Nagabhushana Madhyastha who shared that they are “concerned about brainwashed kids turning into terrorism”, Rikeshbhai Maisuria who stated “Schools shouldn't involve in any issues in another country like politics, law making, or law enforcement”, and Prasad Gokhale who provided that “it is very important that the hate campaign against India, Hindus should be stopped. It is difficult to comprehend why a peace loving, helpful, friendly nation of India is being targeted from goons and bigots.”
Malik is the National Convener for the Canada India Foundation (CIF), and he shared the petition from his personal Twitter page encouraging others to also add their names to stop “breeding hatred” in schools.
The CIF’s stated mission is to foster “stronger bilateral relations between Canada and India”. However, they were recently exposed by the World Sikh Organization of Canada for being “steadfast Sikh Genocide deniers”, as well as having a “history of being Indian state violence apologists” and openly advocating for the Narendra Modi Gujarat government which was implicated in the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre. The CIF also has a history of inviting well-known “Hindutva supporters & supremacists” to speak at its events. Raptors Superfan, Nav Bhatia, returned an award to the CIF after these allegations came to light in late December of 2020.
Baaz reached out to the CIF and Malik for comment but did not receive a response.
The petition seemingly refers to what is being taught to students ranging from ages 12 to 14-years-old in Brampton and Vaughan. However, it does not point to specific examples of breeding hate rather it implies that facts were “far from reality” and presented with questions that were too complicated for students.
An excerpt from the petition reads:
“We understand International issues and general awareness are important for child’s overall learning and growth, but not when biased, uninformed, one sided and hateful agendas are pushed through use of education and classrooms on tender minds. There are many pressing issues all over the world which are continuously dividing and polarizing people, and even adults are failing to have a clear line of understanding, then why make young minds party to that and affect their mental health in a negative way.”
The petition also suggests that the content being used by teachers in class is propaganda that is “purposely being pushed into schools to portray a negative image of India, which has been a shining example of diversity, inclusion, acceptance and tolerance for centuries to mankind and Canada is doing the same in modern world.”
In response to the petition, Michalska wonders what it is hoping to accomplish and if there are any adjustments being offered in how to best speak about polarizing current affairs or if it is just criticism.
She says she is hoping to continue some of the conversations despite the rumours across the GTA that some parents, like the CIF’s Malik, are not happy with the content. She plans on using a reputable educational resource in French and reads every article she assigns to her students, careful to examine for bias.
“No one that I’ve spoken to looks at the Farmers’ Protest and says ‘I don’t have an opinion,’ and that can be really tough when you get a polarizing topic because there is no neutral way to discuss it as soon it’s polarized viewpoints and when there’s no neutral way of discussing it I know that there can be some fear.”
Yousuf Syed is one of the founders of Canadians Against Oppression and Persecution (CAOP). Formed two years ago the group works to help persecuted communities, specifically minorities. He says the organization was founded in the wake of the lockdown in Kashmir nearly two years ago. The CAOP worked tirelessly to address the spread of misinformation around Kashmir and to address those who have supported the agenda of the Indian government. A notable example of a controversial figure that they acknowledged spreading misinformation is Sushil Pandit who has nearly 45 thousand followers on Twitter and hosted a webinar alongside the CIF in the Summer of 2020.
Regarding the matter of the circulating petition, Syed says this is connected to a larger issue of Hindutva (Hindu nationalists) groups and Indian Nationalists trying to silence discussion in Canada around those facing oppression in India.
“Their narrative is Indo-Canadian versus other communities. So, that’s how they are placing their commentary. They are placing it as if it is an Indo-Canadian issue.” But, Syed says, the Indo-Canadian title is much broader and covers many communities.
Only a few weeks ago the controversial Hindu Forum Canada (HFC) was responsible for billboards spotted across Toronto thanking Prime Minister Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for providing Canada with vaccines.
The billboards were taken down however, Syed feels that that similar nationalist forces behind the billboard are likely pushing the agenda of these concerns being raised in schools. In fact, the petition mentions that rather than “push negativity in such crucial times” that there are other aspects of India’s culture that should be embraced in the education setting such as India’s contribution to vaccines and ‘pharma’ in the pandemic. There is also mention of having students embrace Ayurveda yoga.
“Starting the day with Yoga or some sort of meditation would give children much needed positivity and peace of mind, then showing them disturbing content and making them more negative towards the world and opportunities in future,” reads an excerpt from the petition.
“These Hindutva groups, Indo-Canadian groups, they should not import hatred and their ideologies or their pro-government policies into [the] Canadian system,” Syed says.
“They are very much scared. In the situation where there are mixed communities, school-going students; they interact with the Sikh community, they interact with the Muslim community. So they are scared their kids will be under the influence of these communities.”
He adds that community members and school board trustees should be taking action to minimize such complaints. “This is a voice coming from the nationalist group, right? So anything to do with Hindu nationalism or Indian nationalism, that should be stopped at the door itself.”
When looking at the bottom of the petition, it is stated that it should be signed by “parents who feel that schools should not be used to propagate hate and negativity by vested interests.” When asked if she felt pushed or coerced by colleagues or community members in any way into speaking on matters related to the Farmers’ Protests Michalska says not a bit.
“I’ve had nothing but positive conversations. Admittedly, that topic has not come up with any parents. It has come up in my classroom, but hasn’t come up from parents.” She says that parents all have access to her via email and as she teaches online they have the ability to check in with what she is doing.
“I don’t feel coerced, I don’t know of anyone that does feel coerced. Most people I know that are talking about this is because it comes across their kids’ feeds and the kids are asking questions because it links to other things. It goes back to the idea that we don’t lead single-issue lives.”
Monika Sidhu is a journalist based out of Brampton. She covers topics of arts, culture, and social justice. More recently, she graduated with a Master of Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University. You can find her on Twitter at @MonikaSidhuu.
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