During a funeral oration for victims of last January’s Quebec City masjid massacre (January 29, 2017), Justin Trudeau promised that “we will rise from this darkness stronger and more unified than ever before. That is who we are.”
But two years into Trudeau’s mandate, many Muslims in Canada could be forgiven for wondering whether the prime minister’s self-assured paean to diversity and tolerance is, in fact, “who we are.” An Angus Reid poll two weeks after the massacre found 46% of Canadians hold negative views of Islam, while the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s newly released “Taking the Pulse” report found that 44% of Ontario residents believe “police are at least sometimes justified in profiling or targeting” Muslims.
While some of the blame appears linked to Donald Trump’s Muslim travel bans and Islamophobic tweets, they tend to overshadow a historic home-grown discrimination that saw a 253% increase in police-reported hate crimes against Canadian Muslims from 2012–2015. And in the lead-up to the last federal election, the Trudeau Liberals voted to support some of Stephen Harper’s most regressive legislation, from the inflammatory Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act to the infamous C-51 (Anti-Terrorism Act), both of which disproportionately target members of the Muslim community.
“Canadians should not be smug nor take for granted the impact of global trends and also the role various Canadian actors may play in promoting Islamophobia here at home,” says Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). He adds,
This rise in Islamophobia also occurs against the backdrop of a time where there has also been an alarming and well-documented rise in the growth of far-right extremism, which targets not only Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim but Canadians from other racial and religious backgrounds as well.”
While that hatred has also been manifested on the streets of Toronto and other Canadian cities by white extremist demonstrations — part of a national trend of violence committed by well over 100 racist groups — Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), has studiously avoided treating far-right agitation as a security risk. Instead, the latest public CSIS threat assessment named “Islamic” extremism as the nation’s number one threat, despite a paucity of evidence.
CSIS could learn a thing or two from the NCCM’s continually updated online map of hate crimes, a chilling litany describing tales of racist graffiti, women having their hijabs ripped off, death threats, the firebombing of a masjid, and a bullet fired into an Islamic centre where children were studying. When Mississauga Liberal MP Iqra Khalid introduced the non-binding motion M-103 to condemn Islamophobia and study racial and religious discrimination in early 2017, she received thousands of hate messages, forcing her to change office protocol, from door locks to selective answering of the phones.
Perhaps few have experienced the growing anti-Muslim sentiment as intensely as Dalhousie University international studies student Masuma Khan, who continues to face a daily barrage of mutilation, rape, and murder threats almost six months after she posted on social media about the decision of her student council to abstain from Canada150 celebrations, calling them an “act of ongoing colonialism that glorifies continued theft from, and disenfranchisement of, the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (Canada).” Khan’s subsequent post calling out white fragility resulted in the threat of disciplinary action for an alleged student code of conduct violation.
While the action was only withdrawn after a national outcry — with one Dalhousie professor noting that none of the male dentistry students implicated in the notorious 2014 posting of misogynistic and homophobic messages ever faced such sanction — Khan continues to live with the fallout.
“I get called a terrorist when I walk down the street, I get spat on, I get told to go back home when I was born in Halifax, I get death threats, I get called anti-Canadian when I stand up for Indigenous rights,” says Khan, who questions whether her safety is being taken seriously when, despite the well-publicized threats, the university has not been proactive in offering her security.
This fall, her campus began offering “emergency hijab kits” for women whose head coverings had been spat upon or violently removed. The kits include bystander resources, numbers to lodge complaints, and safety tips. Khan says they are akin to first aid kits, unfortunate necessities on stand-by in the event of attacks.
Despite the threats, Khan says she is refusing to be quiet, noting “even when I’m not speaking out I’m still not safe.” She also points out that a family member who is not involved in her realm of political action is nonetheless on the no-fly list for sharing the same birthdate and last name as someone else the government considers a risk.
In Ottawa, the federal government plays a two-track game, issuing anodyne statements about diversity while pursuing an agenda that, rhetoric aside, still mirrors the Harper era. While even conservative leaders like Britain’s Theresa May have directly criticized Trump’s incendiary anti-Muslim tweets and actions, Trudeau has been silent. The prime minister was slow in condemning Quebec’s face covering ban (Bill 62) and absent the day MPs voted on the contentions M-103 Islamophobia motion. Also of concern was the October 2017 decision not to lay terrorism charges against the Quebec masjid shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, which critics say perpetuates the harmful stereotype that only Muslims are terrorists, and never victims.
During his 2015 election night victory, Trudeau shared an anecdote about meeting a woman in hijab who reportedly told him she was voting Liberal “because she wants to make sure that her little girl has the right to make her own choices in life and that our government will protect those rights.” Two years later, those words rang hollow in a Parliamentary committee room addressing the Liberals’ problematic security legislation Bill C-59. On December 12, London, Ontario’s Zamir Khan informed MPs that his 3-year-old son Sebastien has been marked as a possible security threat on the “No Fly List” since birth.
“For families with flagged infants, the associated delays further complicate an already challenging travel schedule,” said Khan, who co-founded the fast-growing group No Fly List Kids. The organization is concerned that C-59 promises no proper redress system to eliminate information that wrongfully pegs their youngsters as security risks, a stigmatization with traumatic results.
“As these children grow older, they become aware that they are the reason for the ever-present waiting and security scrutiny,” Khan notes. “When the children grow into teenagers and young adults, particularly young men, their innocence becomes less obvious… Their delays become longer and the scrutiny more intense. This has meant that some families have missed flights and that the kids shy away from air travel for fear of stigmatization. This is not a future I want for my son.”
Matthew Behrens is a Canadian peace and social justice activist with the organization, Homes Not Bombs. An edited version of this story appeared in the December 21, 2017 edition of NOW Magazine, Toronto.