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Do new security measures signal blue skies for Peel board meetings?

Do new security measures signal blue skies for Peel board meetings?

The mood was lighter inside the HJA Brown Education Centre on Wednesday, April 12, compared to the incensed theatrics as of late.

It was the first night the Peel District School Board implemented new measures to monitor access to meetings by having attendees sign in and provide identification.

Tension lingered outside the building, as protesters opposed to Muslim prayer in Peel schools stood on the sidewalk, while police and security eyed the small group.

Education director Tony Pontes said an estimated $1,500 was spent on additional security Wednesday, with three paid duty Peel police officers and eight guards. That amounts to $6,500 this year on increased security at meetings.

As well, Pontes said three more individuals have been banned from all board properties — driving up that total to four, which includes former Mississauga mayoral candidate Kevin Johnston, who was among protesters on the sidewalk.

Near the outside entrance, a new group made its presence known. Most of them wore sunglasses, displayed patches from punk bands and had their faces covered.

“I’m here with Peel community members, former students, and we’re here to provide support to people who are looking to come in and out of this meeting,” said Ben, a Toronto student who did not conceal his face. Ben and his cohorts were concerned about attendees being “bothered” by protesters.

The feeling of solidarity was strong inside the board room, where representatives from each union in the Peel board sat in the crowd, some wearing shirts that read: “Standing up Against Hate.”

“This whole religious accommodation thing has become something entirely different,” said Dan Bouchard, president of CUPE 2544.

“It’s become a thing about hate, it’s become a thing about oppression; it’s been a very intimating environment and it shouldn’t be happening.”

Religious accommodation for Muslim students has been an issue all school year. It started last fall when the Muslim community was upset with a procedural change to how Peel schools handled Friday prayer.

Pontes presented his decision on Friday prayer at a heated meeting on Jan. 10. Since then, board meetings have gone off the deep end with crowds against Muslim prayer in Peel schools as well as those opposed to religion in public schools in general.

For the first time since Jan. 10, members of the Muslim community like Sandra Noe attended a board meeting to “support the people who are supporting our children.”

Noe said the overall climate for the Muslim community in Canada has been difficult, citing the attack at a Quebec mosque earlier this year.

Having delegated the board last December about Friday prayer, Noe has been observing the controversy around religious accommodation unfold.

“It’s disruptive in its representation of Peel residents, and it’s disruptive in the image of what Canadians are,” she said.

Given the peaceful feel inside the boardroom on Wednesday, Pontes is optimistic that it could be a sign of tensions subsiding.

Knowing that the minds of those critical of Muslim prayer have likely not changed, he suggested, “Perhaps they see that their voice is shrinking, as other voices are increasing.”

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