Edmonton Public Schools approves multi-faith days off, but advocates want more

EPSB meeting.

Public schools in Edmonton will soon have a new multi-faith calendar that recognizes more than 100 "days of significance," but will grant just two redirected days off for non-Christian holidays.

National Indigenous People's Day on June 21 and Diwali on Oct 24 will be holidays next year, after Edmonton Public Schools (EPSB) voted Tuesday to shift professional development days.

EPSB is consulting with 10 different faith groups in an effort to make its holidays more inclusive, and several trustees called the process a "good start."

But several speakers at its Tuesday board meeting told trustees that the current calendar and the results of this revamp are falling short of what they want.

The Islamic Family and Social Services Association, along with other groups, are asking for eight religious holidays to be recognized with days off in upcoming years, because they are not happy with the current Christian-focused calendar.

"EPSB’s existing holidays are not neutral; they reflect colonial structures and entrenched privilege," a document from the association said.

"They’re also not reflective of practical reality; many classrooms experience double digit absences on significant cultural holidays that make regular teaching impractical."

A number of advocates agreed with that assessment of the existing holidays, including a vice-chair of Edmonton's Anti-Racism Advisory Committee.

"There are many students that are alienated and their values and their backgrounds are not normalized," Trent Daley said.

"We need to ensure that students are not questioning whether or not to go to school."

A former EPSB student told the board she was faced with that choice firsthand when she wanted to celebrate Eid with her family on a school day.

"How does this place that I love ask me to choose between my culture and this thing that I wish I could celebrate, and having to show up for classes?" Srosh Hassan asked.

"This is a way to make students not have to choose."

EPSB's superintendent signed off on a report that said there were seven days that were requested as new holidays in 2022-23.

The report said four of those requested dates were school days and it recommended one be accommodated with a day off.

"This approach, along with the existing provision of the Education Act for parents to excuse their children from school for religious reasons without academic penalty, will create a more inclusive school environment and yet allow for operational needs of the division," a report submitted by Darrel Robertson said.

The document also asks teachers to consider not planning school events and tests on culturally significant days. The calendar will be reassessed on a yearly basis.

The board voted Tuesday night to add June 21. 

ACCOMMODATING EVERYONE IS 'TRICKY'

A member of Edmonton's Interfaith Centre for Education and Action applauded EPSB's effort to recognize significant days of other faiths.

"I think it's a wonderful first step… I love the idea," Netta Phillet said.

"It promotes our vision, which is the embrace of diversity and the idea that the more that we learn about each other, the more we'll get along."

But Phillet called it "tricky," if not impossible to accommodate everyone with days off for religious celebrations

"Even Christians don't all use the same calendar, there are denominational differences, so what is a holiday and who decides what is a holiday is not a straightforward matter," she said. 

A petition circulating online is also calling for days off for eight religious events, including Bandi Chhor Divas, Diwali, Eid-ul-Adha, Eid-ul-Fitr, Indigenous Peoples Day, Lunar New Year, Winter Solstice and Yom Kippur in 2023-24.

The petition suggests that existing non-instructional days, often used for long weekends, be shifted and designated for multi-faith celebrations.

EPSB Chair Trisha Estabrooks said the school division will continue working with the advocacy groups and families.

“The school calendar impacts tens of thousands of families in our city and I see this as an opportunity to go back out and connect with families on the significant changes but I’d also like to see some engagement on this idea really, truly, creating more inclusive calendars,” she said.

EPSB's current calendar consists of 178 instructional days and includes holidays on Good Friday and Easter Monday and a winter break from Dec. 20-31.

Students also have Sept. 30 off for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

A 2021 StatsCan report concluded 63 per cent of Canadians identify as Christians, 26 per cent said they had no religion and the second most common organized religion is Islam at 4 per cent.