Can Toronto help Canada end casteism in the classroom?

The city’s school board has become the first to recognise caste discrimination. All of Canada must follow.

People react to discussion of the ordinance to add caste to Seattle's anti-discrimination laws in the Seattle City Council champers, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Seattle. Council Member Kshama Sawant proposed the ordinance. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
People holding up messages against caste discrimination during a Seattle City Council meeting in February where the practice was recognised as illegal. On March 8, 2023, Toronto's school board passed a similar measure, the first of its kind in Canada [John Froschauer/AP Photo]

On March 8, 2023, the Toronto District School Board ( TDSB) made history by passing the first ever resolution in Canadian legislative history accepting the reality of caste discrimination and vowing to combat it. The resolution was introduced by board trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam and represents a profound acknowledgement by Canada’s largest school board of the suffering of caste-oppressed parents.

As a Dalit in Canada, I am relieved that the pain of my people will finally be recognised in Toronto. The TDSB will now ask the Ontario Province Human Rights Commission to “provide a framework” to address caste discrimination in public education.

This historic move now positions Dalit Canadians to break a long silence that has enveloped the issue of caste. Ontario could become the first province in Canada to recognise caste discrimination. To me, and every caste-oppressed Canadian like me, this really matters. That this comes just weeks after the Seattle City Council in the United States embraced similar legislation gives me even more hope that the days when caste discrimination could be ignored in North America are coming to an end.

Caste negatively affects more than 1.9 billion people worldwide, including 2.5 million South Asian Canadians, crippling our quality of life. It determines who and where we worship, where we live, our choices and advancement in education and career, even personal relationships — in essence our entire lives.

Dalits, who sit at the bottom of this hierarchy, are branded “untouchable” and sentenced to a violent system of caste apartheid with separate neighbourhoods, places of worship and schools. And while caste might have roots in South Asia, it is also alive in Canada and is haunting our communities and schools in Toronto and beyond.

I came to Toronto over 15 years ago, knowing that my reasons for coming here were not the same as those of many other South Asians. I didn’t come for economic reasons, but to escape the punishing violence of the caste system.

Back in India, I suffered violence and indignities too painful to name. I was born in a Dalit-segregated ghetto in my village. I had dominant-caste schoolmates and teachers who would treat me with untouchability and mock the fact that I did not know English. My family lived in deep poverty. In India, Dalits like us endure an endless parade of caste atrocities — could be raped or murdered just for crossing what dominant castes lay down as acceptable boundaries for us. It was horrific.

After much struggle, I brought my family to Toronto. We lived in a basement and began to build our lives here. Throughout my journey to become one of the few Dalit social workers in Canada, I saw so much casteism: from people discussing the segregation of their places of worship to the casual cruelty of caste slurs and jokes in South Asian family circles. At South Asian parties, for example, people would commonly crack casteist jokes equating Dalit people with criminals, saying we were dirty, uncultured, flawed and depraved, that we were the rapists and thieves back home.

They would even extend that casteist mindset to other South Asian immigrants, criticising Caribbean Indians as having no culture because they were from the “lower” castes. These jokes are not the exception but the norm.

What shocked me was how open the bigotry was in our community. As a social worker in the community, I have witnessed how caste is part of the coercive control in domestic violence between inter-caste couples. It is part of the abuse of caste-oppressed domestic workers by dominant caste families. And it’s central to the exploitation of undocumented workers who are trafficked to work in restaurants, construction and other industries. That’s why I founded the South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network of Canada so that our community would have a voice and a pathway for civil rights alongside other protected communities.

Of course, caste discrimination in Canada is as old as the Dalit community’s existence in the country. Maihya Ram Mehmi, the great-grandfather of Dalit civil rights activist Anita Lal, experienced caste discrimination in the form of untouchability in the lumber mills of British Columbia when he came to the country in 1906.

Multiple recent surveys, including by Dalit civil rights organisation Equality Labs and the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity have shown that Dalit workers and students in the United States face rampant verbal and physical assault and discrimination. Our work shows that it is no different in Canada, and recent reports of wage theft and intentional deprivation of caste-oppressed workers at a temple in Toronto underscore that.

Yet nothing is more painful to a Dalit parent than witnessing how caste discrimination feeds into bullying in schools and impacts children’s mental health.

Our daughter recently shared with me that a classmate told her she could not be friends because she is from a lower caste. She has told us about the casteist bullying she encounters on the playground. I am haunted by the violence we thought we had escaped, and am horrified to see my daughter facing the same here in Toronto schools. As I wipe her tears time and again from these traumatic casteist encounters  I wonder how deeply our children need support to heal from caste and work toward reconciliation.

Because my family is not alone. Meera Estrada, a Dalit Hindu journalist in Toronto, whose children attend school in the TDSB, told us how she stayed silent growing up, ashamed of her caste identity, in part because, “I just knew that we were not part of the narrative, and if we were, it was in a mocking way or meant to ridicule.”

“Had I been taught about caste when I was younger, I would have understood what was happening to us, especially as I experienced more exclusion as a Dalit woman in my later years,” she said. “All South Asian children must have access to accurate evidenced-based history that looks at the systems that have caused historical harm so that we can heal and learn from it together.”

Of course, the children are not to blame here for how they treat each other. Frankly, the community is also not to blame here. We have never had honest dialogue centred on healing from caste. That is why we need caste equity sensitivity that teaches our painful past but also shows the hope of reconciliation.

That’s why Dalit Canadians and their South Asian allies around the world are celebrating this historic win in Toronto. Casteism exists in Canada. It is impacting caste-oppressed Canadians in unlawful ways that impact our civil rights and create unsafe schools and workplaces. And we know what the remedy is: changing policy and building awareness of caste equity.

We know there are the bigoted few who opposed this resolution. But there have always been opponents to civil rights. And Canadian civil rights and international human rights obligations should not be determined by the bigoted. We must insist on our equality and the implementation of the rule of civil rights for all.

We thank the Toronto school board for standing on the right side of history and leading Canada in this motion rooted in healing and reconciliation. The tragedy of casteism can be remedied, but we must be clear-eyed about the problem and be united in our commitment to healing and reconciliation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.