January 30, 2017

Message from Director Pontes to staff re: events in the US and Quebec City

The following message was distributed to all Peel District School Board staff:

Dear colleagues,

Like me, you are probably shaken by the events of the weekend, especially the tragic, senseless act of violence at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec in Quebec City. As of this morning, there are six confirmed dead, many injured, some critically. Our thoughts, our prayers are with them.

By any definition, what happened in Quebec was an act of hate. As Muslim families prayed, the individuals entered and began shooting. It is impossible to imagine what that must have felt like for those in the mosque—and for their families. For a time of peace and prayer to be destroyed by unthinkable violence.

So, where does this leave us—as a public school system? What is our role in the wake of the tragedy in Quebec? We know when such incidents happen we always support our students, staff and community. Indeed, we need to do the same today. And resources are coming today to schools.

But we cannot forget that this cruel act of violence did not occur in isolation—it happened on the backdrop of a weekend where a selective travel ban in the U.S. sparked anger, protests and fear. Where many began to feel unsafe and unwelcome. When the specter of Islamophobia was real and present.

While it is not appropriate for us, as Canadians, to pass judgment on a highly political decision by the U.S. president, it is our role to see, to understand and to respond to the impact on our own students, staff and community. And that impact is real.

On the weekend, I heard from staff concerned about student well-being. Students were beginning to ask "am I safe," "will other students still play with me," "will I be deported."  That is heartbreaking—and we must act as Canadians, as educators—no matter what our role—and as members of a caring #PeelFam.

For while we might understand the difference between the north and south of the border, our young students may not. While some of us may not worry about a travel ban, others—especially our students, families and staff from the affected countries –will see this as a significant threat to their own freedom. And for many of our students, who came from a place of war, or loss or worse—like our almost 1,000 Syrian refugee students—this may be terrifying. 

So, what do we do? How can we possibly respond? Well, as Martin Luther King once said, "The time is always right to do what is right." For us—each of us—every person who works in this board, what is right is to make absolutely sure our students know, without question, that they belong here. That they are safe here. That they are welcome here. That they are cared for here. Always. ​

This is the time to put our shared values into action—to be caring, cooperative, honest, respectful, responsible and inclusive. To be proactive as we support each other, and the students and community we serve. To inspire hope. In the face of darkness.

The resources coming to schools and departments today will help with this work , and we are flying our flags at half-mast out of respect for the deaths in Quebec. But our greatest resource is each other. It is our depth of caring for our students. It is in our words and our actions that reassure those students that they are welcome. That they are safe.

No matter what your job description, I want that action to be job 1 for you today, as it is for me. Desmond Tutu said, "Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness." I want you to be that light today. Our community needs you to be that light today.

Thank you,

Tony Pontes,​
Director of Education, Peel District School Board

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