Bryann Aguilar
CTV News
October 20, 2023

The union representing 6,000 municipal and library workers in York Region is calling for the chief executive officer of the Markham Public Library to step down following the brief removal of Islamic Heritage Month displays from its branches.

CUPE Local 905 released a statement on Friday, saying it has no trust left in the leadership of Catherine Biss as CEO of MPL, and that her resignation would be “a first step towards rebuilding the relationship between workers and their employer.”

An email surfaced on social media this week in which MPL staff were directed to “take down any merchandising” on the Islamic Heritage Month and not “actively promote” it given the current situation in the Middle East so the library would not be perceived as “taking a particular side.”

In a statement on Monday, Biss called the email sent last week “inaccurate” and apologized “for any confusion or hurt this has caused the community.” The CEO said at a news conference the following day that the email was sent out prematurely but declined to provide further details as it was now an “HR matter.” Save

Biss did admit that Islamic Heritage Month displays were temporarily removed from MPL branches one morning last week while the library was investigating complaints from staff and community members about favouring one side of the Israel-Hamas. However, the displays were later restored in the afternoon that same day.

Biss said typically, MPL reviews complaints and then determines the direction it plans to take moving forward. However, she suggested that, in this case, a mistake was made.

“In retrospect, while we were following our normal process, I want to apologize for the confusion and the hurt that this has caused,” Biss said. “I take full responsibility and apologize to the community.”

Biss vowed that there would be a thorough review of relevant policies and procedures in the wake of the incident. She added that MPL would be reaching out to local faith-based communities to reassure them of the library’s commitment to diversity and rebuild trust.

Biss also noted that the library does not confuse Islam, Islamic culture or the Muslim people with the conflict in the Middle East.

Following the incident, CUPE Local 905 said they met with its members and heard concerns from frontline staff.

“This latest incident of Islamophobia from the senior management of Markham Public Library is part of long-standing systemic racism faced by our members in this workplace. The confusion between the religion of Islam and the events in the Middle East is not only erroneous but also affects the safety of workers we represent,” the union said.

“The subsequent comments from MPL CEO Catherine Biss display a lack of accountability and transparency about the intent of the email.”

The union said it echoes the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) call for a full investigation into the email and the subsequent events and accountability of anyone involved.

NCCM denounced the library’s directive, saying in a statement: “We do not think that those involved in making such a decision deserve to be on the city payroll any longer. We cannot tolerate Islamophobia – especially not from our institutions.”

With files from Joanna Lavoie