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Markham Public Library CEO promises review of policies after temporary removal of Islamic Heritage Month displays

“What we’ve been pushing for is an investigation from the city of Markham into the councillor that was allegedly involved,” said Aasiyah Khan of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
Oct. 18, 2023
Jeramine Wilson

The Markham Public Library is promising to review a decision to temporarily remove displays related to Islamic Heritage Month, acknowledging the move didn’t follow policy and caused harm to the community.

The library faced backlash this week when an internal email from a manager directing the removal was shared on social media. The email, dated Oct. 11, 2023, stated that “merchandising” related to Islamic Heritage Month, which is in October, would be “perceived as we are taking a particular side” in the Israel-Hamas war, and should be taken down. It stated the request to remove the displays came from senior management and an unidentified city councillor.

While the library initially released a statement saying the email was inaccurate, CEO Catherine Biss acknowledged Tuesday that library management had directed the displays be removed while they conducted an internal review after hearing a range of feedback from staff and community members.

She said management directed staff to return the displays later the same day, adding the initial email was sent “prematurely,” not following normal protocols Markham Public Library has for dealing with concerns from the community.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims condemned this move by the library as Islamophobic and called for an investigation into the matter.

Biss apologized for the “confusion and hurt” the decision caused.

“I want to be absolutely clear that in no way does MPL confuse Islam, Islamic culture or Muslim people with the events in the Middle East,” Biss said Tuesday.

“We commit to doing a thorough review of our relevant policies and procedures,” she added. “We will continue to invest in training to address unconscious bias, equity and inclusion for all our staff.”

A staff member at the library who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity due to fear of job reprisal said that at their branch the displays were taken down for two days following the dissemination of the email.

The employee criticized the library’s initial statement and apology as not being transparent. “It sort of made it seem as though the displays were always up at the branches and it really didn’t take accountability of the initial decision.”

Aasiyah Khan, the interim chief operation officer at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, wants to see more action beyond these apologies.

“What we’ve been pushing for is an investigation from the city of Markham into the councillor that was allegedly involved,” said Khan, who grew up in Markham. “As well as looking into MPL and holding those who engaged in this kind of conversation ... accountable.”

Madiha Vaid, a weekly visitor to the library, says MPL should engage in open and transparent dialogue with local Muslim leaders and organizations to better address concerns.

“It’s upsetting because we only get one month out of the whole year to celebrate our heritage. I just feel demoralized,” she said. “And this is part of a bigger issue.

“It’s a reminder that even in the middle of international tensions, we should strive for understanding and unity at a local level first, irrespective of our backgrounds ... The situation in the Middle East should not influence how we celebrate diversity in Canada.”