Saudi Arabia steps up funding for Canadian Islamic schools – leaked docs

Image from ottawaislamicschool.org
Saudi Arabia has been offering financial support to expand Canadian private Islamic schools with donations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to secret cables recently released by WikiLeaks.

The newly published trove of documents reveals conversations between government officials from Riyadh and diplomats at the Saudi embassy in Ottawa from 2012 and 2013. The cables show that two significant donations worth $211,000 and $134,000 were made to schools in Ottawa and Mississauga respectively.

The information came from 500,000 leaked Saudi diplomatic cables, which WikiLeaks has begun to release.

The schools admitted to a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, that they asked for the donations to help meet growing demand, citing thousands of people on their waiting lists.

There is nothing illegal about making donations to private schools in Canada, but there have been reports that Saudi money can come with strings attached, such as encouragement to teach a more puritanical form of Islam.

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Canadian Islamic schools have denied accepting conditional donations, stating that Saudi Arabia has no influence over what is being taught.

“It’s not the way we operate. We are solely Canadian and we have our own way of doing things,” the executive director of the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC), Sharaf Sharafeldin, told The Globe and Mail.

MAC is in charge of mosques and private Islamic schools, including the popular Olive Grove School in Mississauga, which received the $134,000 donation.

Before the money was received, a cable was sent from the Saudi embassy in Ottawa to Riyadh, stating: “[MAC] needs support and aid to carry out a development and construction project for phase two at the school. There is no observations or anything against it.”

The Olive Grove’s popularity has been surging, partly because it is located in the booming Mississauga community near Canada’s most populated city, Toronto. According to Sharafeldin, it has 1,200 students on the waiting list.

Following questions from the media, MAC sent a mass email out to parents to dispel fears of any Saudi influence, stressing “the grant came with no conditions.” However, in order to receive the donation, the school had to apply for Saudi financial support.

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The Ottawa Islamic School is also expanding: “[We are] currently building an expansion on its property worth approximately $4-million, that will meet a lot of shortage for space,” Principal Mohamed Sheikh Ahmed told the Canadian newspaper.

The cable regarding the Saudi donation to the Ottawa school reveals the discussions surrounding the $211,000 donation.

“Regarding the provision of financial aid to a number of Islamic institutions, including … the Ottawa Islamic School in Canada, we would like to inform you that we have disbursed the first payment of that aid by a cheque,” that cable said.

Religious schools are fairly popular in Canada, with prospering Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Jewish ones operating in multicultural communities. However, a lack of public funding makes schools very dependent on donors.

The Canadian government has raised concerns about the influence Saudi Arabia’s funding on various Muslim institutions receiving their donations. “We have to be concerned about all foreign funding coming in,” said the chair of the Parliamentary National Security Committee, Conservative Senator Daniel Lang.