by Susan Korah in Ottawa
It was a book launch and discussion that should have taken place in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Tripoli or any other capital of the Arab world.
Instead, it unfolded in Ottawa, capital of the land of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as Lebanese-Canadian author Elie Mikhael Nasrallah pointed out to the audience at the launch of Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World.
Published by Friesen Press, Hostage to History is the latest book by Nasrallah, an Ottawa-based journalist, author, political commentator and immigration consultant.
Approximately 150 people – mostly Lebanese Canadians – gathered at the St. Elias Centre for the book launch.
Arab World in decline
“We have to stop blaming colonialism, or Zionism, or the foreigner and look deep within our own culture to explain the turmoil in the Middle East,” Nasrallah told the audience, emphasizing that the pen may be mightier than the sword in places like Canada, where freedom of expression is enshrined in law and respected by the population.
The central thesis of Nasrallah’s book is that it is a cultural, not religious, failure that has sent the Arab world into a vortex of decline and chaos after a brief period of glory between the 7th and 13th centuries, when its civilization reigned supreme.
“Indeed, the Arab world of that period was in a similar situation to the U.S. today,” said Nasrallah. “It was the world’s super-power.”
According to the book, if there is one central cause for the decline and fall of a once proud civilization, it is the triumph of anti-rationalist thinking during the final years of the Abbasid Caliphate, a dynasty of the Muslim Empire. This resulted in a suspension of rational inquiry and reasoning in the Arab world.
Several factors led to the decline and fall of the Abbasid Dynasty and along with it, the collapse of rational thinking processes. These included a weakening leadership, the loss of control over distant territories, corruption and economic stagnation.
“After 1513, with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, Arab civilization fell into a coma,” said Nasrallah, adding that after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab heartland sank into an even deeper black hole.
Nasrallah went on to give a list of factors that he says underlie the current malaise in the Middle East. Lack of access to education and literacy skills for women; misunderstandings about the concept of freedom; lack of separation between religion and state; dependency on oil with no economic diversification; and kinship, family and clan preventing the creation of civil society institutions are among the reasons he listed.
Imam Sheikh Haitham Hujaij of the Ahlul-Bayt Centre in Ottawa said colonialism, as well as the factors cited by Nasrallah, have played a role in the upheavals of the Middle East.
Arab culture needs own enlightenment
Hostage to History not only provides a diagnosis of the ailments of contemporary Arab society. It also offers a prescription.
“To get out of this black hole, we need to form a cohesive group of Arabs of all faiths and start a cultural revolution, a return to Ijtihad,” Nasrallah said, citing the term in Islamic law that refers to critical thinking.
“Here, in Canada, we are living with the benefits of the Enlightenment, and we can start the process here with conversations like this,” he added, referring to the European intellectual movement that began in the late 17th century and emphasized reason and individualism.
“We need a reformation, a cultural revolution of our own, within the confines of our own culture,” he continued. “We don’t need to copy the European model, but we need to wash the dust off from ourselves and do a mental spring cleaning.”
Bridging the East and the West
Daniel Nassrallah, the Ottawa-born lawyer whose firm DNG Nassrallah Law Offices sponsored the event, said that the book launch was the first of a speaker series that he will be organizing to give a voice to the Arab community and to generate discussion.
He added that events like this could help to raise awareness of the Arab diaspora within the larger community. He explained that although Canada is a great country, negative stereotypes concerning Arabs persist and that it is important to break them.
“We need to overcome the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality,” he emphasized. “We don’t want to be just tolerated. We need acceptance as part of the Canadian family."
Ottawa City Councillor Eli El-Chantiry also referred to negative stereotyping, saying “We need to be out there and challenge these.” He praised the author and his work as a “bridge between the East and West.”
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver
“Near the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, at Al Rasheed Street, there is a meandering alley named after the Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi,” read Shawk Alani, the organizer of the ninth “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” reading in Vancouver.
The reading, quoting Phillip Robertson’s 2005 report, “The death of Al Mutanabbi Street,” was the first of many during an evening in commemoration of Iraqi literature.
On Mar. 5, 2007, a car bomb devastated the famous bookselling street. Since 2007, writers, activists and artists have marked the anniversary of the attack with literary readings as part of a project called “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.” Spearheaded locally by the Pandora’s Collective at the invitation of founder Beau Beausoleil, the annual event has included readings from Vancouver writers like Bonnie Nish and Hadani Ditmars.
This year, readings were held in over 20 cities across North America, Europe and the Middle East.
“I think the idea of Al-Mutanabbi Street ‘starting here,’ is to put context to history, and to say that these issues are not just issues that are local,” said Shawk, who prefers to be referred to using her first name. “These politics cross borders, there is relationships between what happens here and what happens in Iraq.”
The evening at Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus was an immersive experience, where guests were greeted with a classical Iraqi playlist as they entered and offered cardamom tea.
Alani introduced the historical and political significance of the event, reminding the crowd of the pitfalls of the literary culture that was being celebrated. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, writers and intellectuals were servants of the state who produced literature praising the regime, for which they were rewarded.
The readings included the original and translated works of the 10th century poet, Al-Mutanabbi, read by Wadood Hamad, adjunct professor in chemistry at the University of British Columbia.
Hamad also read the poetry of one of Iraq’s most famous and influential poets of the 20th century, Muzaffar Al-Nawab, who wrote on the themes of love, politics, philosophy and existentialism.
Iraqi writer Dima Yassine and Palestinian filmmaker and songwriter Sobhi Al-Zobaidi performed original works that reflected on their lived experiences and memories of their homes.
Sara McIntyre read an excerpt from Inaam Kachachi’s American Granddaughter, a novel about a young Iraqi-American who serves as a translator during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the passage, the protagonist must stage a raid of her own grandmother’s house, as it’s the only way she is allowed to see her.
Alani issued a trigger warning prior to reading from journalist Anthony Shadid’s book Night Draws Near.
The excerpt, titled “A boy who was ‘like a flower’” dealt with the funeral of two teenaged boys who were victims of an unattributed attack. The scene addressed a raw, intimate moment of sorrow, anger and frustration that was all too common during the Iraq War.
In addition to the readings, Shawk showcased a short film by Iraqi creative director Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie, featuring the rebuilt Al-Mutanabbi street today, and played Walid Gholmieh’s Symphony No.2, “Al-Mutanabbi” B. Flat Major.
Shawk’s grandfather collaborated with the Lebanese composer to produce the piece, which was meant to provide listeners with an auditory experience similar to that of reading Al-Mutanabbi’s poetry.
Readings provide healing
“I think it’s important to make spaces that are critical, events that are a bit more involved, bringing more critical thought into people’s consciousness,” said Shawk of her involvement in the initiative.
She said that bringing the story of Al-Mutanabbi Street into consciousness and awareness was the first step, but she also felt the need to give people an opportunity to act upon this knowledge.
To inspire action, Shawk screened a video clip featuring Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal: 168:01, an art installation in Windsor, Ont. that includes a 12-metre bookcase filled with 20,000 blank books. Bilal hopes to swap each of the blank books for a real book that will be donated to the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts.
Shawk said the significance of hosting this reading is about saying, “I’m here, I’m a part of this city now, and I want to bring to people’s awareness things that are happening in the other place where I also belong.”
She indicated that for members of the Iraqi and Arab diaspora, the event also represented an opportunity for “dealing with the emotions, the crisis, the trauma, all in a way that’s productive.”
Shawk noted that the Iraqi diaspora is quite diverse and unique in that there have been multiple conflicts over the past 50 years during which large populations emigrated, either as refugees or by choice.
“Art is an outlet; it is a place where we put our pain. You take the pain, you externalize it in a piece of art, and then you can step back and look at it and deal with it in a different way, and you can share it with other people,” said Shawk.
“Doing readings by other people is kind of like sharing that thing that has been externalized, and realizing that actually there are so many ways in which we have the same experiences.”
Shawk added that “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here,” enables Iraqis — a group that has been historically victimized and portrayed as weak, unhappy and constantly being killed — to partake in creating an alternate history for themselves.
Reflecting on her own birth in Baghdad in the wake of the first Gulf War, Shawk explained, “You can create a space in literature where you can celebrate life, resistance, and existence.”
Publisher's Note: This report has been updated to correct the history of this initiative: this was the ninth – not the first – edition of the reading. We regret the error.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Alireza Ahmadian in Vancouver
In this piece, journalist Alireza Ahmadian discusses Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia with Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization working in Canada and abroad to advocate for policy reform to prevent war and armed violence.
The deal, valued at almost $15 billion, is the largest arms export contract in Canadian history and was awarded during the 2013-2014 fiscal year. It will see the shipment of an undisclosed number of light armoured vehicles, manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems, based in London, ON, to Saudi Arabia.
It is not just HRW and AI who condemn the abysmal human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Every authoritative organization in the world consistently ranks Saudi Arabia among the worst human rights violators [on] the planet.
There is a widespread and well-documented pattern of violations of virtually every category of human rights in Saudi Arabia, so Canadians should definitely be concerned about the possibility that Canadian-made goods might be used to sustain a repressive regime and enable the further violation of human rights of civilians.
What do we know about how Canadian arms are being used in Saudi Arabia? Are there any safeguards or ways of ensuring these weapons will not be used to violate human rights?
We certainly know about the proclivity of the Saudi regime to systematically target civilians. In 2011, there were reports of Saudi forces using armoured vehicles, such as the ones Canada is set to ship to Saudi Arabia, to crush peaceful civilian protests in neighbouring Bahrain.
The primary safeguard to ensure Canadian goods are not misused should be Canada’s own military export control policy, according to which the government must first determine that “there is no reasonable risk” that Canadian-made military goods might be [used] against civilians.
Given what is widely known about the Saudi dire human rights record, it is hard to comprehend how there can be “no reasonable risk” of misuse. But so far the government has resisted calls to explain how the Saudi arms deal can be reconciled with the human rights safeguards of existing exports controls.
Former foreign affairs minister, John Baird, also said that this deal has economic benefits for Canada. For instance, the arms deal supports “3,000 unionized workers in London, Ontario." What’s wrong with an arms deal that hires 3,000 Canadians?
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with job creation … However, we must recognize that this is a special case that merits special scrutiny. Valued at $15 billion, this is by far the largest military exports contract in Canadian history. And, as stated above, it is widely accepted that Saudi Arabia is a human rights pariah.
So, while job creation is a legitimate pursuit of any government, in a case as egregious as this, we must assess as a society what is the real value we place on the protection of human rights.
If economic gains are taken as the sole justification for arms exports authorizations, what’s to stop a country from selling weapons to ISIS or North Korea or organized criminals halfway around the world?
The Harper government did not sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that seeks to regulate international arms trade and prevent military exports from fuelling armed conflict and human rights violations. Canada is the only country in North America, the only member of the G7 group of industrialized nations, and the only one of the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that has not signed the treaty.
It is worthwhile to note that countries such as Syria, Pakistan, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are also non-signatories.
Do you think that signing this Treaty would address concerns over lack of transparency in Canada’s arms deals with other countries? How so? Do you think the new government will sign the treaty?
Yes, I believe the new government will accede to the Arms Trade Treaty. It was an election pledge of Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau, and was a specific priority of foreign affairs minister [Stéphane] Dion’s mandate. This is a position to be welcomed and encouraged.
The ATT entails increased expectations of transparency around arms deals and greater vigilance in regards to the end users of military exports.
At the same time, Canada may find itself sending a mixed message about its willingness to live up to the ATT’s heightened expectations of transparency when legitimate concerns about the human rights implications of the Saudi arms deal remain unaddressed.
It has been reported that in May 2015, Martin Zablocki, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, the crown corporation that brokered the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, said that the Middle East is a “strategic region” for Canadian arms sales. How does this deal serve Canada’s strategic interests? What would you say to those who argue that other countries are selling arms to the Middle East?
It is a strategic region from a purely business perspective, of course. It is no secret that the previous government made economic diplomacy a cornerstone of its foreign policy. In this context, the Canadian [Commercial] Corporation has acted as an active facilitator in the pursuit of these deals, not just as a passive intermediary.
“Everyone else is doing it,” sounds like an argument void of any ethical considerations and undermines the credibility of Canada’s military export controls — which Ottawa calls “some of the strongest in the world.”
The Liberal government said that it would honour the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Why do you think the Liberals decided to follow through with this deal even though they are trying to undo other aspects of the Conservative’s legacy?
This deal would present a complex policy challenge for any party in power. There is a real confluence of economic, strategic and human rights dimensions that must be taken into consideration. But, again, Saudi Arabia isn’t a case of a handful of unconfirmed human rights violations. The human rights situation in the autocratic kingdom is absolutely abysmal.
In a case where red flags are so apparent one would hope that the government would recognize, at a minimum, the need to publicly explain how this deal can be justified in light of existing export controls.
The Canadian public has a right to know that the economic well-being at home is not being tied to the suppression of human rights elsewhere.
How would you suggest the new government pursue future deals like this?
There are specific human rights safeguards that are part of Canadian military export controls. Of course, however strong they might be on paper, they are only as effective when implemented.
Beyond the need to abide by domestic and international regulations (including the Arms Trade Treaty, following accession) there is a need for greater transparency and oversight around the process by which arms exports authorizations are granted.
by Amanda Connolly in Ottawa
The federal government’s 2015 report on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia is in its final stages of preparation, but no date has been set yet for its release to the public, says an official at Global Affairs Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said over the weekend he would release a redacted version of the report upon request when it is completed.
The report, which is separate from the human rights assessment conducted as part of the export approval process for the government’s $15-billion arms deal with the kingdom, is expected to run between 60 to 70 pages and to be similar in style to those posted publicly by the U.S. State Department and the U.K. Foreign Ministry.
Meanwhile, the human rights assessment completed to meet federal arms export control requirements for the light armoured vehicles deal is not expected to be made public.
It’s been four years since the government last completed a country report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Country reports under the previous Conservative government were not released publicly; Dion said the current government wants to move away from that approach — and is open to suggestions on how best to balance security concerns with the public’s right to know what the government knows about how human rights are handled in allied countries.
“I have asked my officials to review current practices regarding these reports and to provide me with recommendations,” Dion said in an e-mailed statement. “I want to ensure that we respect the safety and security of identified sources.”
Canada-Saudi relations point of controversy in the past
Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been a source of controversy in recent years. The country has been widely condemned internationally for its treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists; it’s also a powerful Western partner in Middle Eastern affairs.
The State Department’s 2014 assessment of human rights in Saudi Arabia flagged multiple issues ranging from denial of due process and arbitrary arrest to human trafficking, discrimination, citizens’ lack of ability to change their government and “pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children and noncitizen workers.”
The issue of relations with Saudi Arabia popped up briefly during the election campaign, when party leaders were asked whether Canada ought to cancel the deal to provide light armoured vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard — essentially the royal family’s private army.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper defended the deal, saying it didn’t make sense to deprive Canadian workers of the jobs it would bring.
“Look, we express our outrage, our disagreement from time to time with the government of Saudi Arabia for their treatment of human rights,” he said in September. “I don’t think it makes any sense to pull a contract in a way that would only punish Canadian workers instead of actually expressing our outrage against some of these things in Saudi Arabia.”
Speculation of little change to come for Canada-Saudi relations
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then debating Harper as leader of the Liberal party, declined to give a clear answer on whether he would scrap the deal — leading to speculation that he would do little to change the relationship if elected.
That’s proved to be the case so far, despite increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran over the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
Saudi Arabia announced two weeks ago it had killed Nimr al-Nimr, who was charged with terrorism offences over allegations he incited anti-government sentiment during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’.
Protestors firebombed Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran in response, prompting the kingdom to cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran and urge its allies to do the same.
Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and several other countries in the region announced over subsequent days that they were severing or downgrading relations with Tehran — but reaction from Canadian political leaders was tepid.
“Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is strategically important, for our security and for the security of the region,” said interim Conservative Party Leader Rona Ambrose in a press release.
Dion also issued a press release in which he stressed that Canada regularly chats with Saudi Arabia about what it should do better to protect human rights.
“The Government of Canada raises concerns about human rights and due process with senior Saudi Arabian officials on a regular basis and will continue to do so,” the release said.
“In the wake of these executions, we reiterate our call to the Government of Saudi Arabia to protect human rights, respect peaceful expressions of dissent and ensure fairness in judicial proceedings.”
Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca.
by Susan Korah in Ottawa
The spark of revolution that was ignited in Tunisia in January 2011 quickly spread to other Arab countries, but exploded into conflagrations of violence and instability, notably in Syria and Egypt. As such, for most countries of the Middle East, hopes of democratic reform in the near future faded.
In stark contrast, in Tunisia itself, the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring’ – as the new movement was dubbed – the candle flame of a pluralistic democracy burns steadily, even four years later, although it flickers sometimes in the winds of economic, social and security challenges.
This was the outline of a portrait of Tunisia that three experts presented to an audience of about 200, at the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa Thursday night.
A lone success story
“Tunisia is the only success story of the Arab Spring,” said John McNee, Secretary General of the Global Centre for Pluralism as he introduced the two guest speakers – Mehdi Jomaa, interim Prime Minister of Tunisia during the country’s time of transition from dictatorship to democracy (2014-2015) and Dr. Marwan Muasher, former Foreign Minister of Jordan and currently vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Moderating the panel was Dr. Bessma Momani, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.
“The key to our success was our willingness to generate dialogue and consensus,” said Jomaa, emphasizing that negotiations between secular and religious elements resulted in a secular constitution that even acknowledges the right of people to hold no religious beliefs if they choose to do so.
“We should be proud of what we have achieved, but we should also be vigilant,” he cautioned, referring to the economic and social challenges including high unemployment that still plague the country. He added that recent terrorist attacks in his country are a hindrance to creating new opportunities for employment.
“The movement towards democracy takes time,” he said. “It can’t be achieved in a short time, and Tunisia is a start-up democracy. We need the collaboration of the international community.”
Nonetheless, the nation’s remarkable achievements must be noted, Muasher said.
“Tunisians are far too modest about what they have been able to achieve in three years,” Muasher stated. “Within that time, they have been able to agree to a constitution in which all people, including women, have rights.
In fact, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of four organizations including unionists, employers, lawyers and human rights activists that played a key role in the country’s efforts to build a pluralistic democracy.
Lessons for the world
Highlighting some lessons that Tunisia has taught the world, Muasher explained that Tunisians have shown early on that the battle for the future can’t be fought between religious and secular parties. It has to be fought for an accommodation of all views.
Also, in order to keep power, governments have to share power, Muasher said.
Muasher contended that these lessons were lost on both Islamist and non-Islamist parties in Egypt; also on ISIS in Syria whose “barbaric, exclusionist model” has kept the country in turmoil.
He concurred with Jomaa that the process of democratization in Tunisia would take time. “To get people to accept diversity will take generations,” he said. “No transformation process took only four years.”
He argued that the battle must be for pluralism in all its dimensions including political, religious, cultural and gender.
Need for education reform
“The Arab world needs to reshape its education system, which is so extremely exclusionist and omits pluralistic values,” Muasher said. “There is an unwritten understanding between religious and secular forces that nobody can question authority, and this needs to change.”
Muasher added that it might take two generations for the education system to accomplish this.
Though Muasher emphasized that the process of Tunisia’s nascent democracy must be “homegrown and not imposed from outside,” he pointed out that the country is not on the radar of the international community to the extent that it should be.
One area in which the country could use more support is in reforming the education system, he said, adding that it is not so much a question of building more schools, but of retraining teachers and giving them the skills to promote critical thinking.
“One positive aspect of the revolution is that the era of fear is over,” he concluded. “People are now less afraid to question authority.”
Reinforcing Muasher’s statement on promoting critical thinking skills, moderator Momani said: “The Arab Spring is not yet over. Those young people who took to the streets are fundamentally different from previous generations. They are questioning authority and religion. We have to support their transition to critical thinking.”
Momani spoke of the important role of social media and communications technology in the movement that’s happening in Tunisia, where as Jomaa pointed out to New Canadian Media, there is no government control of the press.
“The genie is out of the bottle and won’t go back into it. Arab youth are talking online and in chat rooms. A social and cultural revolution is happening.”
THE federal government on Saturday announced the creation of the Syria Emergency Relief Fund and will match every eligible dollar donated by individual Canadians to registered Canadian charities in response to the impact of the conflict in Syria, up to $100 million, effective immediately and until December 31. The fund will help meet the basic needs of […]
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by Shazia Javed (@ShaziaJaved) in Toronto
Speed Sisters, which is making its international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival this week, is a documentary that tells the story of an all women car-race team in Palestine.
As the film follows the five women, who are members of this team, it provides a glimpse into the present day life in Palestine, which is beyond the monotonous narrow portrayal often shown in the mainstream news.
And yet, its foray into the subject of women in sports is of universal relevance.
Amber Fares, who directed this film, lived in Palestine for seven years. Fares was born and raised in the Grande Prairie, Alberta and moved to Vancouver after finishing university.
She initially went to Palestine because she was offered a position with a company based in Ramallah, a city at the West Bank.
At that time, Fares thought that she would take that as a “break for six months and just have that experience,” but she says she loved the community around her and ended up staying much longer, making films for NGOs.
It was during this time that she heard about the all women car race team, which she features in Speed Sisters.
Here, New Canadian Media catches up with Fares, while she’s in Toronto for the Hot Docs film festival, and asks her about the challenges she faced while shooting in Palestine and how her Lebanese-Canadian roots have helped her filmmaking career.
Speed Sisters screens at 6:15 p.m. on April 29 inside the TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 (350 King St. W.), at 7:15 p.m. on April 30 inside the Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) and at 4 p.m. inside the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles St. W.) in Toronto.
Shazia Javed is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. All week long, New Canadian Media will feature her ongoing coverage of diverse films and filmmakers at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival.
by Maryann D’Souza & Mourad Haroutunian (@MHaroutunianTO) in Toronto
In part two of NCM’s coverage of the reactions amongst the ethnic/immigrant communities to Ontario’s sex education curriculum changes, our reporters focus on South Asian and Arab Canadians. To read part one, click here.
Most South Asians are uncomfortable talking about sex. That’s it plain and simple. And living in another part of the world hasn’t changed that, especially for Generation X. There might be a few that are somewhat open-minded, but even those hesitate when the time comes to have ‘that talk’ with their children. No surprise, therefore, that many in the community have added their voices to the growing group that is protesting the new sex-ed curriculum being implemented in Ontario schools this September.
Too Much Too Soon
It’s too much too soon say some of the protestors. Seven is a “sensitive age” and “too early” to be discussing concepts like homosexuality with their kids. In a recent article in the Weekly Voice, Jotvinder Sodi (founder of the Home Owners Welfare Association in Peel Region) spoke out on behalf of a group of “concerned” Brampton parents who organized a meeting to gather support against the curriculum.
“We fear that the proposed subjects could be about homosexuality and anal sex and discussions about puberty and masturbation. We believe that these are age sensitive material, age five to seven is too young to be exposed with this type of knowledge,” wrote Sodi.
Discussion is Permission
What many may not readily admit though is that, generally amongst South Asians, this discussion is not welcome at any age. Shazia Malik captured this sentiment in her article in the South Asian Daily. She referred to a caller on the South Asian PULSE Radio who said that, “He, as a father cannot dare talk to his young son about these matters openly, how will those be discussed in the class?”
Surjit Singh Flora, whose protests are written in a number of community publications, made his feelings clear in a Can-India News article. “Teaching small kids about sex means putting something in innocent minds which could backfire. They might take it the other way around… and it could have exactly the opposite effect than that it purportedly hopes to prevent — more rape crimes and sex abuse on the streets, at home, clubs, schools, bars, etc.,” he wrote.
“We don’t want our kids to get the idea that we are giving them permission to go ahead,” one mother said, on condition of anonymity.
Angst Amongst Liberals and Conservatives
Within the Arab community, much like amongst South Asians, there is overwhelming disdain for the new curriculum, which hasn’t been updated since 1998. In fact, both Liberal and Conservative minded Coptic-Canadians teamed up this week to voice their opposition at a protest outside of Queen’s Park, initiated by various community organizations.
“Mississauga’s Coptic churches had a strong presence in the event,” reported Good News, a Canadian–Coptic newspaper, on its online platform. A number of buses transported protesters from Mississauga under the auspices of Father Maximos Rizkalla, the pastor of the Church of St. Mary And St. Athanasius, the paper added.
Protesters held banners reading: “It’s a parent right to teach their children about sex,” “Math, not masturbation; science, not sex,” and “What’s next? Safe animal sex?”
“It is utterly unacceptable to see the government overstep their boundaries to take on the parental role while failing to deliver to their mandate,” Ghada Melek, one of many activists who called for the protest, wrote on her Facebook page on Feb. 24.
“Today's rally sent a loud and clear message to the Wynne government that we oppose her proposed sex education to our children,” added Melek, a Copt, who debuted her political career last year when ran (and didn’t win) for Mississauga Ward 6 councillor.
Political Leaders Speak Out
Sheref Sabawy, an influential Coptic activist from the Federal Liberal party, did not abstain from joining the consensus of his community and supporting his rivals, the Conservative party.
“I am adding my voice and efforts to all Ontario parents who are concerned with the new sex ed curriculum,” Sabawy wrote on his Facebook page. “There will be no new curriculum before full consultation with parents.”
Sabawy says he believes parents should be consulted through town hall meetings, questionnaires, or, if needed, written consent of parents. “Liberal values are clear to me and do not mean immorality,” he says.
Politicians in the South Asian community also spoke out against the curriculum. The Weekly Voice and South Asia Mail reported former MPP Harinder Takhar (who served under Premier Dalton McGuinty) as saying that he had advised McGuinty against implementing the curriculum in 2010. He maintains this view stating that, “a serious debate is required in the community on this issue.” The same report also states Conservative MP Parm Gill’s apprehensions. Gill said that being the father of three children, the new syllabus is a cause of concern for him. He was of the opinion that the Liberal party had, “destroyed the institution of marriage and now it is (sic) on its way to put our children on the wrong track.”
Not All Opposed
There are some who support the provincial governments move, though their voices may be barely audible amongst the loud clatter of all the protestors. Two of the five parents interviewed by Can-India News thought it was, “about time.”
“Parents opposing the new sex-ed curriculum are living in denial. Schools should be discussing these issues and giving students the information they need,” said one parent, identified only as Parineet. “They should know about these things because everyone talks about it in schools and it is easy for them to get the wrong idea or information from friends or the Internet. The school would do it scientifically and professionally.”
Irrespective of how parents feel, Premier Kathleen Wynne is determined that the new sex-ed curriculum will be implemented this time. How much of a difference it will make is another matter though, as parents will have the option of pulling their children out of sex-ed classes.
by Mark A. Cadiz @markacadiz & Shan Qiao in Toronto
Many parents throughout Ontario were up in arms about the new sex education curriculum announced Feb. 23, feeling they were excluded as part of the process.
The new curriculum, which is expected roll out in September, has received harsh criticism from some parents in various communities across Ontario.
Firas Marish from Oakville, Ont. is one of the community leaders behind Parents Against Ontario Sex-Ed (PAOSE), a Facebook community group, which launched yesterday. He isn’t holding back with his discontent, and he isn’t alone. The page, in the last 24 hours has already gathered 1200 likes.
“We feel that our role as parents [is] being undermined and this is one of the problems… they are going ahead as if we didn’t exist,” Marish said. “The goal is to protect our kids and we appreciate that move and we support it, but what we are seeing doesn’t serve that goal.”
Marish says with these new changes the government is trying to impose a certain ideology or lifestyle upon his children without his consultation. He, like many other parents, says he believes it is his right to educate his children about sex when he deems it is appropriate. To him, the school’s role is a secondary one on the issue.
He adds that to his knowledge, even school trustees were not informed properly.
What Will Be Taught
Many in the Chinese community agree on sex education being taught, but not as early as Grade 3. Many parents are even more angry when they know content like same-sex relationships will be discussed under the new curriculum.
Jessica Gao, a mother who has a four-year-old boy and a newborn daughter, appealed to all her parents’ friends on the popular Chinese social app WeChat to sign an online petition and oppose the new Ontario sex ed curriculum.
“Growing up in a typical reserved Chinese family, I know how important it is to have sex education and safe sex prevention before we enter our adulthood,” said Gao, who currently stays home taking care of her one-month-old daughter. “Lacking of proper sex education in China results so many teenage abortions. However, do I want my children to learn sexual orientation before he even turns 10 years old? I don’t think so.
Gao, like many other parents, is concerned about when Ontario sex ed curriculum when particular content will be introduced to her children, not to mention, some content will be accompanied with offensive graphics related to masturbation and sexual intimacy.
Catherine Fang, a North York mother who sent her six-year-old boy to a Catholic school, opposes the new sex ed curriculum for introducing sex orientation in Grade 8. “I wish Catholic schools will not use this curriculum. I think Grade 8 is still too young to understand what they feel… discussing sex orientation will confuse them more or less,” she says.
Other parents like Markham area resident Jason Huang wonders whether private schools in Ontario will adopt the curriculum or not. “I think it is too aggressive to introduce subjects such as homosexuality. I have no problem to support the rights for homosexual people, but where is the right to not know this at a fairly young age for heterosexual children like mine?” he asks.
Chinese media, on the other hand, have been covering this sensitive matter without any sensitivity. Words such as “anal sex” and “oral sex” appear frequently on headlines for the story, including in Singtao Daily News and Mingpao Daily News and on Fairchild TV. The coverage focuses mostly on those who oppose.
Mingpao Daily News interviewed several parents from Hong Kong and Mainland China who went to Queen’s Park to oppose on Monday. All of them express their wariness to the new sex ed curriculum as “too much” and “too early”.
“We believe in one man and one woman marriage. We want the Ontario sex ed curriculum to cover more on this part as well,” Dr. Peter Chen, Spokesperson of Toronto Chinese Catholic Task Force told Fairchild TV at Monday’s rally against the curriculum.
How It Will Be Taught
Retired junior high teacher and now president of the Filipino Centre of Toronto, Linda Javier, is more concerned about the delivery of the new sex education curriculum, not the material itself.
“It depends how it will be handled by teachers, because if it’s not handled properly it could be destructive for children,” Javier said. “The success will largely depend on the training that the teachers will get, in order to deliver this curriculum in such a way that it’s taught to the children properly.”
She says the intention of the program is helpful considering the advancement in digital technology, however, she doesn’t believe that from now until September will be sufficient time for teachers to be trained accordingly.
“Whatever is included in the new curriculum is intended to be helpful, it wasn’t intended to harm children,” she said. “But there are ramifications, there needs to be constant follow-ups and analysis to see if it is working.”
And this is the problem for Marish, there is no proof that this will actually make a positive difference, “it’s just trial-and-error,” he said.
In Marish’s culture, pre-marital sex is not promoted and he plans to pass those cultural values to his six-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.
“For my culture we don’t have sexual relationships outside the constitution of marriage, but now all of a sudden it’s being heavily promoted by schools, and not just sex, but different forms of sex… oral sex and anal sex,” Marish said.
This promotion of sex at such a young age does more harm than good and contradicts what he would teach his kids at home Marish continued.
What Marish would like to see is an immediate suspension of the new sex education program and a true inclusive consultation with parents from a variety of backgrounds.
“We want to sit down with educators and people from different backgrounds, different lifestyles and different beliefs and play it fair… I’m sure that we can sit down and come up with something that is satisfactory and protects everybody, we’ve done it before in this country and we can do it again,” he said.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit