My letter to the Toronto District School Board: “I urge you to vote ‘Yes’ today on caste protections for Toronto students”

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Toronto District School Board Trustees,

Today, you will be voting on a motion that would establish caste as a protected category in the Toronto school district—in other words, to ban caste discrimination in the school district. I write to you as an elected representative in Seattle, where a movement of working people won a historic victory on February 21st, making our city the first jurisdiction globally outside South Asia to ban caste-based discrimination. 

Seattle’s new law is correctly being seen by millions worldwide as both an extraordinary step forward against caste oppression and a defeat for the right wing. I strongly urge you all to take the only progressive position on this issue: stand against oppression and deliver another defeat to the right wing by voting ‘Yes’ on the motion before you. Toronto is one of the largest centers of the South Asian community in North America and has one of the highest concentrations of South Asian immigrants anywhere in the world, which means this would be a victory not only for the South Asians in Canada, but also for South Asian immigrant communities the world over.

As we saw in Seattle, the opponents of the motion before you are the right wing. Hindu fundamentalist groups like the Canadian Organization for Hindu Heritage Education (COHHE) have predictably spoken out against this proposed reform. This is unsurprising, given that their agenda is closely linked with other far-right North American Hindu nationalist groups like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA). Both HAF and CoHNA strenuously opposed the ordinance in Seattle, and have issued their own statements against the Toronto anti-caste discrimination motion and endorsements of COHHE. The far-right Canadian press is also up in arms about this proposed protection. True North, a right-wing media group that has previously taken aim at protections for trans students and has an entire section of their website dedicated to anti-immigrant screeds, has also weighed in against the proposed anti-caste discrimination measures.

In opposing the Toronto motion to ban caste discrimination, the right wing are repeating the same talking points we heard against the Seattle ordinance. In their statement, CoHNA claims that protections against caste discrimination in Toronto would somehow deny Hindus the right to freedom of religion and put the South Asian community under special scrutiny. The first argument is nothing new and eerily resembles the Christian right attacking LGBTQ rights, claiming that banning discrimination against queer people violates their religious beliefs. Progressives support freedom of religion, but we cannot allow for it to become an excuse to discriminate against others. And the claim that protections for oppressed caste groups would mean discrimination against Hindus is equally false and unacceptable. It is a version of “White Lives Matter,” which was a right-wing attempt to deny the existence of racism. 

These right-wing groups falsely claim that protections against caste discrimination will create divisions where there are none. But we know that the idea that caste discrimination doesn’t exist in the Toronto school district, or in Canadian society as a whole, is incorrect. To give just one example, Chinnaiah Jangam, associate professor at Carleton University and co-founder of the South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network has described an instance of caste-based harassment faced by a student in Toronto: “An oppressed-caste girl in the 11th grade was told by her classmate that if she were a prostitute, she would not even get a penny because she had dark skin.”

A ‘Yes’ vote on this proposal is what is in the best interests of all public school students in Toronto. Students can experience caste discrimination in many forms in an educational environment, including by being subject to casteist slurs, discrimination in social and online settings and exclusion from dominant-caste spaces. Research has shown that caste-based discrimination is pervasive in cities with large South Asian populations, and Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world, has a population of over one million South Asians, who make up the city’s largest visible minority population. A ‘Yes’ vote on this motion will also be crucial in the fight against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. And as we know, the fight against oppression goes hand in hand with the fight against the unprecedented economic inequality in our society. Your vote on this motion will reveal whether or not the school board stands with oppressed people.

I urge you to vote ‘Yes’ on this motion to fight caste oppression and make history. Please contact my Council office if we can be of service to you in any way.


Kshama Sawant

Seattle City Councilmember

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