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Segregation or Preservation?
By SAN GREWAL
The school discussed in this report is housed within a gurdwara complex that boasts a life-size picture of Bhindranwale at the entrance. That should provide a reasonable idea about the kind of environment on offer inside.
The Toronto Star, Apr. 29, 2006
Photo: San Grewal
Ontario's only private Sikh school embodies a common dilemma.
On a Friday afternoon outside the Khalsa Community School in Malton - Ontario's only private Sikh school - students rehearse a skit in appreciation of Sikh Heritage Month.
On one side, boys in white cholas (ceremonial robes), practise swordsmanship with sticks. On the other, girls wearing the salwaar chemise sit in a circle apart. But as young musicians play harmoniums and sing hymns extolling Sikhism's principle of equality between the genders, the kids come together.
All of the students, whether in traditional dress or the grey and blue school uniform, and their teachers - even those who aren't Sikh - have their heads covered by a turban or patka (a small kerchief), an indication that Sikh religious values hold sway here.
Opened in 1995, this school - and the ambivalence many Sikhs feel about it - has come to epitomize a struggle faced by many of Greater Toronto's ethnic/religious communities: the choice between assimilation and a slow loss of identity; or holding onto traditional ways, which some view as a path to isolation.
'The school basically transformed my life,' says 13-year-old Sharanpreet Kaur Gosal, who reluctantly transferred here from a North York public school two years ago. She's sitting in an office across from the computer lab. In the hall, student projects featuring Canada's flag and other national symbols hang next to work emblazoned with Punjabi script and depictions of Sikh Gurus.
'I didn't know how to write Punjabi or read it before I came here and I didn't know any kirtan (religious hymns),' Gosal says. 'My parents wanted me to learn more about the culture that I had lost.'
Now the Grade 8 student, who reads and speaks fluent Punjabi, says she couldn't imagine going back to a public school. 'It's hard to describe the feeling here. It's more like being surrounded by family all the time.'
That's one reason more and more Sikh parents are putting their kids into the school, which has outgrown the facilities provided free within the precincts of the Malton Gurdwara (temple).
It began with 68 students and now has almost 400. Tuition for each child is just under $3,000, and students are taught the full provincial curriculum, plus Sikh theology, religious music, language and Sikh-Punjabi history.
About five hectares of land have been bought in north Brampton, but fundraising to build a new $5 million state-of-the-art facility there has been a challenge.
Among Greater Toronto's 300,000 Sikhs, a significant political and cultural force in parts of Brampton and Mississauga, many question the benefits of a private religious school.
'If you believe in the Nanak (the first of Sikhism's 10 Gurus) philosophy, then segregation is not a good thing,' says Parminder Singh Parmar, former vice president of the World Sikh Organization.
Parmar has lived in Mississauga 28 years. He wears his unshorn hair under a turban, the most recognizable of the five components of the Sikh uniform established by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. On March 30 of that year, he framed the principle of the Khalsa - the order of pure Sikhs committed to protecting the human rights of individuals. (The anniversary, now commonly referred to as Khalsa Day, is being marked later in Toronto for logistical reasons.)
But like most Sikhs who choose to keep their hair symbolically uncut, Parmar does not observe all the other rules required to become part of the Khalsa.
'Our Gurus learned from others. If our children are now isolated, they come to only learn about their faith while they are separated from so many other beautiful communities,' Parmar says. 'My sons both went through the public education system, and I am proud to say they are now well-rounded Sikhs.'
Tajinderjeet Kaur Chaudhry embodies the divide within the local Sikh community. Having felt isolated as one of the few Sikh students at her public school, she attended a Sikh summer camp near London at age 13. Soon, she was planning to take the serious step of Amrit - a ceremony that designates one's commitment to the Khalsa way of life, which includes physical and dietary codes, daily prayer rituals and other practices.
But by high school she had done a complete 180.
'I cut my hair, pierced my ears. I saw other Sikh kids at high school and became more comfortable identifying as a Sikh in a more secular way.'
A product of the public schools, Chaudhry now teaches at a Brampton high school and is concerned about the lack of direction she sees in her Sikh students. She describes many of them as 'wayward,' lost between two cultures.
'Nowadays, I'm pretty confused, too. There's an aspect to being a Sikh that's more than just your physical or cultural identity,' she says, explaining the step she came close to taking as a teen.
'If you want to pursue the deepest following of the faith, it's a really big commitment. I've visited the Khalsa school and wondered if those kids are too young for that commitment.
'I'm married now; my concerns are my marriage, paying the bills, establishing my career, buying a house, doing what people do. At this point, religion is not part of the game plan.'
Gosal, barely into her teens, says she's not sure if religion will remain a part of her life either, once she graduates this year.
'I want to stay here, but not for the religious influence. Everyone thinks the school is all about religion, but we follow the entire Ontario curriculum. Even other Sikh kids make fun of us for going to a religious school. They call us Gianis (Sikh scholars).'
Vice principal Harman Kaur Ahluwalia says the school simply offers Sikh families a choice.
'Certainly, parents want to know how the kids are integrated into aspects of the mainstream world,' she says. 'We explain to them that our students are exposed to the entire Ontario curriculum, our new sports program allows them to compete against other schools, and we emphasize Sikh, Canadian and multicultural values. We see the school as a foundation, not an entirety. They will inevitably be exposed to other things.
'But in the end, parents and students have to choose between the public system, other private schools or our school. Everyone has different priorities.'