Major Canadian school board recognises caste-based discrimination

Toronto’s school board, the largest in Canada, joins a growing push to ban discrimination based on caste in North America.

Dalit India
A protester in India holds a sign that reads, 'Dalit Lives Matter' [File: Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo

The school board for the city of Toronto has become the first in Canada to recognise the existence of discrimination based on caste, a system of social stratification from South Asia that stretches back thousands of years.

In a vote on Wednesday, the Toronto District School Board voted 16-5 in favour of recognising caste-based discrimination and moving to create a framework for addressing it. The motion was introduced by board trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam.

“This motion is not about division. It is about creating healing and empowering communities and providing them safer schools that students deserve,” Rajakulasingam said, calling for the board to collaborate with the human rights commission of Ontario.

Wednesday’s vote is the most recent example of a growing trend in North America to acknowledge and combat discrimination based on caste.

Under the caste system, those occupying the lower levels of the social hierarchy endure persistent discrimination, abuse and sometimes violence.

In countries with large South Asian communities like the US, members of the Dalit community, also known as “untouchables”, have pushed to ban casteism.

In February, Seattle, Washington, became the first city in the United States to ban discrimination based on caste.

“Like racism, casteism is a system of oppression; it is a very real — and growing — problem in our country and our local communities, but one that is not understood by most Americans,” reads a letter circulated by groups in favour of Seattle’s push to include caste in its anti-discrimination laws.

Some Hindu groups have pushed back against the effort, arguing it unfairly maligned Hinduism and could promote bigotry.

The California State University (CSU) public university system also added caste to its non-discrimination policy in January 2022 in another important victory for Dalit rights groups.

“This policy will educate people about invisible caste discrimination,” Prem Pariyar, a Dalit activist, told Al Jazeera at the time. “It will help to create a welcoming environment for Dalit students across the nation.”

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters