The Edmonton Public School Board has decided to create holidays to mark Diwali and National Indigenous Peoples Day in 2022-23 after a group of advocates called for the board to make its holiday calendar more inclusive.
“There were four faith days or days of cultural significance that were being requested. We accommodated two of those,” EPSB chair Trisha Estabrooks said after the board’s meeting Tuesday night. “We heard from a number of former Edmonton public students today who shared stories about how important it is to see their faith recognized.
“We recognize, and I want our community to hear this too, that this is a first step… but there’s a commitment by this board of trustees that this conversation will continue, that we are on a journey of really becoming an anti-racist and more inclusive school division.”
Estabrooks noted that the EPSB is talking about bringing an “anti-racist lens” to all decisions it makes with regard to the school calendar and she believes hers is the only school division in Alberta that has put out an interfaith calendar.
“Today was a long meeting but an important meeting, and I really value the voices that we heard from today,” she said.
A group of advocates told EPSB trustees that they missed an opportunity to recognize other cultures and religions when they shortened the school year by five days in 2020 due to financial pressures.
Those non-school days were added to long weekends and extended the fall break.
READ MORE: Edmonton Public plans to add 5 more days off to school calendar
Instead, an interfaith group said the time off should be used to celebrate a wider cross-section of holy days.
“We need to make sure that our diverse communities and diverse students all feel included and welcomed and seen,” explained Daman Kaur Grewal, president of Sangat Youth. “It’s a way to get rid of the ‘us versus them,’ the sort of othering you can feel.”
The group had asked for all students to have the day off for Bandi Chhor Divas, Diwali, Eid-ul-Adha, Eid-ul-Fitr, Indigenous Peoples Day, Lunar New Year, the winter solstice and Yom Kippur.
“We’re not talking about a shift in instructional hours. We don’t want to change that. We just want to better utilize the days we already have,” Omar Yaqub said.
The advocates come from various cultural and religious backgrounds, and together, they got more than 1,000 people to sign their petition.
“Indigenous, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Chinese — many, many, many different communities have come together. We have synagogues, mosques, temples and incredibly, many, many Christian groups,” Yaqub said.
Kaur Grewal was an EPSB student and said school often trumped her family’s Sikh holy days.
“We have these important days or events, and we go to the Gurdwara — our place of worship — in the evenings, and if you have a test the next day or assignment due the next day, I can tell you there’s been many I’ve missed.”
She hopes a new, more inclusive calendar will help teachers plan lessons and schools will schedule events around holidays.
“Maybe tomorrow’s a really big day, and I know the students are going to be engaging in their cultural or faith event — they can maybe not make the deadline for the next day,” she said.
READ MORE: For some Canadians, it isn’t easy to celebrate religious holidays
Estabrooks said she knows that “the school calendar impacts tens of thousands of families in our city” and added she wants to continue to engage with families and communities on the issue.
“I really look forward to the conversation continuing,” she said. “The one situation I don’t want us to get into is where we’re giving days or giving holidays and then we’re taking them away.
“There’s still a lot of work to do in this area… In the future, hopefully, we can take some bigger steps.”
According to the Education Act, there’s no academic penalty for being absent on a religious holiday, but the advocacy group says this is about inclusivity.
They also hope it leads to learning — for children of all backgrounds.
“It’s going to spark the conversation. There’s going to be kids in the class who have never heard of it, and they’re going to turn to their neighbour and be like, ‘Is that something you celebrate?’” Kaur Grewal explained.
“Maybe they’ll talk about it, maybe they find similarities between their own faith and customs and traditions and events or they’ll learn something new and take that home with them.”
The multi-faith calendar presented to the board can be found here.
–With files from Phil Heidenreich, Global News
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