In mid-September, as Canada’s federal election campaign formally got underway, a cartoonist from Quebec going by the name of Ygreck published a cartoon that serves to remind Canadians one of the most disturbing election “issues” is, in fact, a particular minority community in Canada: Muslims.
The cartoon shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau taking a selfie with a shark fin dressed as a Muslim woman in hijab. Under the water, the “shark,” labelled “Islam Radical” in French, has an evil grin on its face. The message is quite clear: “radical Islam” is getting away in Canada while Trudeau panders to the Muslim vote.
When the cartoon was released, the prime minister had a bigger problem to deal with — and it, too, had to do with Muslims. Over the course of a few days, several photos emerged in which a younger Trudeau from the 1990s and early-2000s is seen wearing brownface or blackface. Using makeup to darken one’s face for the purpose of entertainment is deeply offensive to those who have faced discrimination due to their non-white skin, including (but not limited to) Canadian Muslims of African or South Asian descent.
In one of the pictures, blackfaced Trudeau is dressed as Aladdin, the main character from the famous Arabian folktale first published in the Syrian writer Hanna Diyab’s version of One Thousand and One Nights some 400 years ago.
Trudeau quickly apologized for these insensitive blunders from his past. Interestingly, one of the first people to publicly “accept” his apology was his own government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, a Ukrainian-Canadian who likely has never faced discrimination due to her race or religion. Other Liberal MPs and supporters of the Liberal Party chose to downplay the entire episode, some of them essentially telling Canadians to “focus on real issues” and “we’re not as racist as the other guys.”
The entire situation was a fitting reminder that despite the Liberals’ encouraging track record on counteracting Islamophobia — the kind of positions that get Justin Trudeau caricatured in cartoons or regularly accused of being a closeted Muslim — the ignorance that feeds into racism and Islamophobia can be lurking just beneath the surface, even among them.
The public’s focus on Trudeau in mid-September allowed two of the other major contenders in the elections to do some cleaning of their own ranks. On September 12, the Green Party’s candidate for the Simcoe North riding, Erik Schomann, resigned after a Facebook post emerged suggesting that he wanted to send a pig’s carcass to Muslims. Schomann said that what he did was “stupid” and he had to accept responsibility for it. He also said that he lived among Muslims for several years, particularly in Nigeria, and that he has “no gripe with Islam, certainly.”
And then Schomann turned the story around to make it sound as if he was the victim in this situation, saying he was “attacked rather brutally on social media” with people calling him “disgusting” and an “embarrassment.” And the timing of his post being exposed also led him to believe that someone was looking through his Facebook posts in a “calculated” move.
The Green Party, of course, does not officially tolerate Islamophobia. And yet, the local riding association in Simcoe North was “devastated” to lose Schomann and that “the consequences for this one post are out of proportion to the offense and are detrimental to our democracy.” It is not difficult to imagine that no Muslims, and probably no racialized minorities, were involved in drafting such an ignorant statement.
Also on September 12, Cameron Ogilvie, the Conservative candidate for Winnipeg North, stepped down after his derogatory posts about Muslims and others surfaced. Ogilvie reportedly deactivated his social media accounts earlier in the year when he was being screened before being approved as a candidate — clearly indicative of the fact that he was aware there may be content he has posted that would be too much even for the Conservatives.
After all, the Conservatives have a history of downplaying concerns about Islamophobia. After the masjid attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand earlier this year, the party’s leader Andrew Scheer initially refused to even mention that Muslims had been purposefully targeted. His current campaign manager is Hamish Marshall, a past director of Rebel Media, a notoriously Islamophobic outlet. Scheer has also shared the podium with the white supremacist “journalist” Faith Goldy, and has allowed one of Goldy’s “best friends,” Justina McCaffery, to be a Conservative candidate from Ottawa. The list could go on.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) has not been faced with any Islamophobia in its ranks as of this writing. However, they have not entirely steered clear of the “Muslim” issue in this election. Earlier this year, the NDP felt compelled to drop Rana Zaman, their candidate for the Dartmouth-Cole Harbour riding in the Halifax area. The reason for this was a series of tweets by Zaman from June 2018, in which she expressed her support for the Palestinian people.
“If Israel is so advanced then why can’t they avoid shooting defenceless paramedics and journalists, unless they’re killing innocent people deliberately,” she wrote. “Israel’s injustice and arrogance can no longer be defended and people are wise to Israel’s tired old rhetoric.” The last straw for the NDP was Zaman’s tweet comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. Zaman’s candidacy was cancelled and she issued an apology, to the delight of B’nai B’rith Canada. Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) was the only group that spoke in her support, saying the NDP is “betraying its progressive roots by allowing itself to be manipulated by the Israel lobby and throwing a progressive woman of colour under the bus.”
Finally, there is the recently formed People’s Party of Canada, a small but loudmouthed offshoot of the Conservatives. In mid-September, the far-right party’s leader Maxime Bernier received an invitation from the CBC to take part in its political leaders debate. This sent the message that the CBC was bestowing some legitimacy onto a party that has strong links to racism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia. At the party’s very first conference last year, the keynote speaker claimed that Muslims were “infesting” the Liberal Party. It only takes a quick glance through Bernier’s daily barrage of tweets to realize that this party has a serious Islamophobia problem.
These attitudes do not emerge in political circles from a vacuum. A 2017 poll, conducted soon after the Quebec City masjid shooting, showed that nearly half of Canadians had a negative view of Islam. Four in five Canadians also said that Muslims face discrimination in Canada. There are many similar statistics demonstrating that even in a country known for its inclusivity, ignorance is often simmering just beneath the surface.
Keeping all this in mind, for Canadian Muslims and, in fact, all conscientious Canadians, it is imperative to put local candidates on the spot this October and demand that they say plainly where they and their party stand on rising Islamophobia in Canada, and what plan they have to actively dismantle it if they are elected.