Identity and immigration in Canada and Quebec

Sorry Kellie Leitch, but you can be Muslim and Canadian

After Quebec, confronting xenophobia and bigotry is more urgent than ever
Photo: Shazron

Reflecting on the horrific massacre in Quebec City against Muslims, I am extremely saddened and almost at a loss for words, as I’m sure many others are. Many are echoing the sentiment: “I never thought this would happen in Canada.” Yet it did happen.

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In order to prevent future attacks on Muslims — or any religious, ethnic, or other minority group — we must ensure we understand why it happened, and not just dismiss it as an act of a lone gunman. This act of terror is a consequence of rising Islamophobia in the Western world, but also particular problems relating to Quebecois culture, which must be faced if we hope to have tolerance and peace in the future.

You can be a worshipper of Islam and be Canadian. These things are compatible and should be celebrated.

Quebec has a cultural feeling quite distinct from the rest of Canada, partly because of its different linguistic heritage and settler history. When I arrived in Montreal in the summer of 2013 I was smitten by the weather and the joie de vivre of Quebecois culture, which is often described as more European and French than that of English Canada. Quebec also has a history of oppression by anglophones. But as history shows, the oppressed are still capable of oppression. Quebec, from my experience, has a particularly virulent form of intolerance towards the “other.” This is part of the explanation of why the massacre happened in Quebec City.

Charter of Values

In the summer of 2013, the Parti Québécois introduced the Quebec Charter of Values bill, which was hotly debated, opposed by Montrealers, and eventually waned in popularity before it died. The bill eerily reminded me of French politics. The rhetoric was similar to that of right-wing Europeans who claim that immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, threaten the fabric of Western culture and must do more to integrate.

Europe’s problem is its ahistorical, static conception of European identity. Integration has always meant that the immigrant should strip herself of her identity in order to become just like a European (a secular, blond version of the European.) European culture requires absolute conformity to a twisted prototype or else the immigrant should “go back home.” But no matter how much immigrants conform, they’ll never be European enough because so much of the European identity is based on heritage and bloodlines. I lived this reality as a child of immigrants in Europe myself. This static version of culture — which is actually an exchange of ideas and ways of living across lands and continents that is constantly evolving, changing, and (hopefully) progressing — emphasizes that the “other” is a threat that must be carefully controlled or jettisoned altogether.

It’s a very difficult time right now to practise Islam in the West, or even have a Muslim name or heritage. The War on Terror promulgated by the Bush administration and the ensuing criminal invasions, which created ISIS/Daesh and have produced so much carnage and suffering in the Middle East, have resulted in the scapegoating of Muslims at home. Obama kept it to a minimum by espousing inclusionary politics, but the genie has been unleashed from the bottle by Trump, who has given a licence to all racists, bigots, and neo-fascists to promote hatred and commit hateful acts, knowing the President of the Free World milked this agenda to seize power.

We have to proclaim loudly that you can be Muslim and a Quebecer. One does not preclude the other.

Muslims have not always been made to feel welcome in Quebec. As the debate about the Charter of Values suggests, Muslims have been a target of mistrust, prejudice, and racism. Politicians have exploited this sentiment and perpetuated it for political gain.

Every time someone suggested that “visible religious symbols” be banned, surely they knew that Muslim women who wear headscarves would be the most obviously affected. And the Quebec attempt, like the French attempt, was about shoving a static, ahistorical prototypical identity down the throats of immigrants and locals alike. When a Quebec town with only one immigrant family banned the stoning of women, what message was sent to that family and the Muslim community in general? That they were not welcome, that Islam was incompatible with Western values and ways of living, and that to be a Muslim was to be in favour of stoning women.

Welcoming immigrants

Despite their French roots, Quebecois people, culture, and language are unique. We don’t have to reproduce the European problem or France’s approach to integration. We don’t have to exclude religious people from our public realm.

We must do the opposite, by welcoming immigrants, learning from them, and exchanging cultures to create a more open, inclusive, and tolerant future for our children. We have to proclaim loudly that you can be Muslim and a Quebecer. One does not preclude the other. We must proclaim loudly that we welcome Muslim immigrants in Quebec.

You can be a worshipper of Islam and be Canadian. These things are compatible and should be celebrated. There are so many successful examples of this. Don’t let short-sighted, bigoted politicians like Kellie Leitch tell you otherwise. Don’t let them get away with exclusionary politics and hate. We must work together to ensure our society is welcoming, tolerant, and inclusive of all people regardless of how they dress, what they look like, or whom they love. Only when we come to the conclusion that we all have a right to this land, so long as we respect one another and the land itself, can we move forward.

This is not a utopian vision. This is what human dignity requires. Anything else is barbarism. We can’t espouse the ideals of the Enlightenment while treating those that are different like criminals. Shouldn’t this be obvious?

We should be more accepting and welcoming of immigrants because we are an immigrant nation built on stolen Indigenous land.

We are capable of so much more. We must do everything in our power to ensure the safety of all, and especially of the most vulnerable, at this historical juncture. My thoughts and prayers are with the families affected by this horrific act of bigotry and violence.

An immigrant nation on stolen Indigenous land

What I appreciated about Canada when I immigrated here is that being Canadian doesn’t require you to strip down of your ancestral, religious, or ethnic identity. I am at peace here and this is my home in a way that Europe never was. This is a great testament to this nation’s ability to welcome others and to integrate people from vastly different backgrounds. However, this is not everyone’s experience.

Systemic racism, discrimination, and misogyny do exist and continue to cause suffering and injustice in Canada. I expect more from especially Canadians and Quebecers of European descent to fight white supremacy, ethno-nationalism, and intolerance in all its forms. The terrorist with the name of Alexandre Bissonnette is a product of our society, not an aberration.

We should be more accepting and welcoming of immigrants because we are an immigrant nation built on stolen Indigenous land. This is why we need to make peace with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and this is why we should welcome our Muslim ones.

Because our culture is not static and ahistoric, despite what the likes of Trump or Le Pen or Leitch may think. Our sum can be so much better than our parts.

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