Surrey school district’s rejection of a “Khalistan referendum” voting event that was set for Sept. 10 at Tamanawis secondary school in Newton over promotional posters displaying an assault rifle being stabbed by a pencil has raised the question whether using public schools for plebiscites related to politics outside Canada should be permitted in the first place.
Typically schools are used as ballot stations for federal, provincial and civic general elections. But this particular event at the Surrey school, before it was cancelled, would have seen Sikh voters weigh in on a non-binding referendum on whether the state of Punjab in India should become an independent nation called Khalistan.
On Sunday (Sept. 3) the school district cancelled the “community rental” on grounds promotional material for the event depicted images “of our school, alongside images of a weapon,” which according to a statement issued by the district violated the rental agreement.
”Our decision is in no way an endorsement of, or criticism of, any political position,” the statement reads. “We have communicated the cancellation to the event organizers and have initiated the refund process for any payments made in connection with the rental.”
Surrey-Green Timbers MLA and Education Minister Rachna Singh has not responded to requests for comment. Meantime, Surrey school trustee Garry Thind told the Now-Leader, “Frankly, I don’t know how it got booked at the first point.”
If the department in charge of facility rentals would have consulted himself first, he said, as a person who “knows that community well, I could have told them not to get into this at that time because I knew it will be very, very political, they cannot win both sides. One side will be unhappy regardless of what you do.”
Thind noted school rental income is important to the district, at hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, for “very important programs” for “most vulnerable students.”
But as for renting a school for a referendum related to politics outside of Canada, he said, “would have been a first.”
Going forward, he said, he thinks the school district will alter its school rental policies to exclude voting events related to politics outside of Canada. “They’ll be done more transparently so none of these incidents will happen in future,” he said.
Trustee Gary Tymoschuk, vice-chairman of the school board, said sometimes policies need to be reviewed and revised.
“As current chair of the policy committee that’s something that we could look at,” he said. “Garry’s saying it should be changed, certainly we’ll look at it.”
“This would have been a decision at the staff level,” he said of the current matter. “It didn’t even come to the board, it didn’t need to come to the board, again because we have a policy in place. As long as the policy was followed and I believe it was, I don’t know, I can’t say for sure, but once the posters start going out and depicting, you know, essentially violence and a picture of our school that’s when it became a problem, and that is against our policy.”
Stewart Prest, a professor of political science at UBC, said using a Canadian school to stage a referendum vote related to another country is not something he’d heard of before now.
“It’s a highly contested subject; that’s where you get into some of the real challenges,” he said. “To avoid any kind of expression of state support for interference in another country’s political problem. It’s the sort of thing where there may be diplomatic implications for Canadian institutions being seen to be in some sense supportive or at least open to those kind of endeavours.”
After all, Prest noted, “schools as public institutions are venues of the state.”