The Toronto District School Board has taken a historic step by becoming the first school board in Canada to acknowledge the existence of discrimination based on caste. The board has voted in favour of recognising and addressing caste-based discrimination, with 16 members voting in favour and 5 members voting against it. The motion was introduced by Yalini Rajakulasingam, a board trustee, who stressed that the aim of the motion is to heal and empower communities and provide a safer environment for students, rather than to create divisions.
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Caste-based discrimination is a social stratification system that has existed in South Asia for many centuries, leading to consistent discrimination, abuse, and even violent treatment of those belonging to lower social classes. In the US, the Dalit community, has been advocating for the prohibition of casteism. Seattle became the first US city to ban discrimination based on caste in February, and in January 2022, the California State University public university system included caste in its non-discrimination policy.
Prevalence of Casteism
Caste-based discrimination affects a significant number of people worldwide, including over 1.9 billion individuals and at least 5.7 million South Asian Americans. It dictates various aspects of life, such as education, career opportunities, personal relationships, and even the right to worship in certain places. Although it may not be as prevalent in the US as in India, caste-based discrimination is still present, with reports from South Asian immigrants from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Maldives, and indentured communities.
Although there has been a growing trend to acknowledge and combat caste-based discrimination in North America, some Hindu groups have opposed these efforts, claiming that it unfairly accuses Hinduism and could encourage prejudice. While discriminatory practices were prohibited in India more than 70 years ago, studies have shown that discrimination still exists, with people from lower castes being underrepresented in higher-paying jobs. Dalits continue to experience widespread mistreatment in India, where their attempts to achieve upward social mobility have been violently suppressed.
The caste system’s hierarchy remains a controversial issue in India and other countries, with religion being a significant factor. While some people argue that discrimination is now uncommon, the topic is still hotly debated. Indian government policies that reserve seats for lower-caste students at top universities have enabled many to secure technology jobs in Western countries in recent years. Activists who oppose caste discrimination argue that it is no different from other forms of discrimination like racism and, therefore, should be made illegal.
According to the 2016 survey on Caste in the United States by Equality Labs, one in four Dalits in the US reported experiencing verbal or physical assault, and two out of every three stated that they faced discrimination in their workplace. In 2016, the National Council of Canadian Tamils conducted a survey that found that over 60% of respondents had experienced caste-based discrimination in Canada. The survey also found that over 70% of respondents believed that caste discrimination was a problem within the Tamil community in Canada.
A report from the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity and Equality Labs, indicates that in US higher education, four out of five students, staff, and faculty members who belong to the caste-oppressed community experienced caste discrimination from their dominant-caste counterparts. Moreover, the report highlights that three out of four stakeholders who experienced caste discrimination in their universities or colleges did not report it. The reasons cited were the absence of caste as a protected category, or the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments’ inability to handle their complaints.
The Toronto School Board Decision
The Toronto District School Board’s recent decision to acknowledge and tackle caste-based discrimination is a significant and positive development that shows its commitment to creating a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students, regardless of their backgrounds. This decision serves as a strong statement against all forms of discrimination. The board’s collaboration with the human rights commission of Ontario, the most populous province of Canada, is a promising step towards addressing caste discrimination in a comprehensive manner.
Acknowledging caste-based discrimination is becoming increasingly common in North America, and the Toronto District School Board’s recognition of it is timely given the current global emphasis on social justice and equity.
This decision is a significant milestone towards creating a more inclusive society. It emphasizes that any form of discrimination is not tolerable, and by taking steps towards developing a framework to address it, the board is conveying that all students should have access to a secure and friendly environment.