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Principal apologizes for asking student to remove Palestinian flag from online profile

The principal of an Ottawa public school has apologized for asking a student to remove the Palestinian flag as their profile picture.

National Council of Canadian Muslims says similar incidents occurring in school boards across Canada

The Palestinian flag

The principal of an Ottawa public school has apologized for asking an elementary school student to remove the Palestinian flag as their profile picture.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) confirmed the incident took place during an online class last week.

Video sent to CBC shows the principal of the school asking a student to remove the flag from their profile. CBC is not showing the video as it could identify the underage students.

In the video, the principal said "political statements are not for the classroom" and told the student they would be removed from class if they didn't comply with the request.

Listen to the audio of the video:

"We will follow up with your family because we want to keep all students feeling safe, welcome and included in our classrooms," said the principal.

"You're not really welcoming me right now," replied the student.

The principal then offered to have an immediate followup conversation with the child and their family, and concluded "we want all of our students to feel welcome, and having one side or the other doesn't include all students."

The video shows two other students then changing their profile pictures to the Palestinian flag before it ends.

CBC is not identifying the school to protect the privacy of everyone involved.

'Unacceptable' request by principal

The National Council of Canadian Muslims received dozens of complaints about the incident, including one from the family of the student involved, according to the council's chief operating officer Aasiyah Khan.

"There's a lot of confusion and there's also a lot of anger and frustration," said Khan, adding it has been an especially difficult time for the Jewish and Palestinian communities since the conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted nearly two weeks ago.

"Rather than creating a space to support students through this, I think surveilling or bullying them into muting who they are, or erasing part of their identity, is unacceptable," she said.

The council arranged a meeting with the OCDSB following the incident. School board officials declined requests for an interview, instead sending CBC a statement already issued on its website addressing what happened.

"Upon reflection and thanks to the thoughtful feedback received from students and parents, the following day the principal acknowledged that for many students, a flag may be an important part of their identity," the statement read.

The statement said the principal had apologized to the class and to families "for any harm that may have been caused."

Flags allowed, says school board

The statement went on to read that symbols of hate, discrimination or violence would never be tolerated but students have the right to express their "identity, background or beliefs."

"While this was regrettable, we would ask for understanding as school staff are working to navigate an extremely challenging international situation in a way that allows all students and staff to feel safe and supported," it said.

However, Khan said this particular incident follows a trend in school boards across the country over the last two weeks, with the council's caseload increasing fourfold.

What's happening in the Middle East is "being weaponized and impacting students here," she said, with the Palestinian flag being associated as "a threat."

"It's really hurtful because that is someone's identity," said Khan.

"Really what we're saying is, 'Hey, you can come to school but leave that part of you at the door,' and I think that's completely sending the wrong signal, especially as we're thinking about how do we commit to equity and inclusion."


Nicole Williams is a journalist for CBC News based in Ottawa. She has also worked in P.E.I. and Toronto. She is part of the team that won a 2021 Canadian Association of Journalists national award for investigative journalism. Write in confidence to Nicole.Williams@cbc.ca.

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