Canada needs a national day of remembrance against Islamophobia

In wake of Quebec City shooting, governments must act with more than symbolic motions
Photo: michael_swan

Need proof that the roots of racism run deep in Canada? One need only look at the backlash caused by M-103, the motion against Islamophobia put forward by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid. To weed out Islamophobia and racism, we need to go further than a motion that remains mostly symbolic. A good first step would be a national day of remembrance against Islamophobia. That’s exactly what a coalition of Muslim organizations is asking the government to implement, along with other measures including more anti-racist education and better police training.

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Immediately after the Quebec City mosque attack, many right-wing pundits lined up to proclaim the assailant a Muslim terrorist, and dubious news sources claimed two gunmen had shouted “Allahu Akbar!”

All the self-congratulatory “I told you so” tweets and memes quickly dried up when police revealed the terrorist to be a white-nationalist Quebecer who idolizes Trump. The right wing of the Conservative Party, who have stoked anti-immigrant sentiment for years, suddenly had very little to say, that is, until M-103 came up for debate.

Khalid had previously introduced M-103 in December. The short 175-word motion is not a bill and would not commit the government to any action if passed. Yet it has becoming a lightning rod for the extreme right. Conservative MPs oppose it on the grounds that it threatens freedom of speech, especially the ability to criticize Islam, and have called for the removal of the word “Islamophobia.”

Right-wing media leads protests

The extremely right-wing commentary website Rebel Media released a steady stream of videos and articles (including one titled “Dear Liberals: Islamophobia is Justified”) against M-103, claiming that it would bring sharia law to Canada.

Beyond countering public demonstrations, we need to ingrain anti-racism into our education and cultivate it as a pillar of this country’s identity.

On Feb. 15, Rebel Media also organized a rally in downtown Toronto that drew hundreds of people to oppose the motion. Four of the Conservative Party leadership candidates spoke at the event and urged attendees to protect Canada from immigrants and radical Muslims.

Two days later, just before midday prayer, over a dozen people blocked the entrance to a mosque in Toronto. They shouted at Muslims trying to enter and called for a ban on Islam.

On March 1, the Council of Conservative Citizens of Canada sent a bomb threat to Concordia University. In the letter, the group wrote, “Now that President Trump is in office south of the border, things have changed,” and promised to detonate one bomb per day until the university banned Muslim activities. After evacuating campus, police found no explosives, and have since taken a suspect into custody.

Shortly thereafter, on March 4, a seemingly separate group, calling itself the Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens, planned rallies against Islam in more than 35 cities. Only a handful of people showed up to most of the events and quickly left when faced with far larger counter-protests. Rallies in Toronto and Montreal drew closer to 100 supporters, who were still outnumbered by counter-protesters. Only in Quebec City were M-103 opponents and white supremacist groups able to draw a larger crowd.

Hate crimes on the rise

According to police reports, hate crimes against Muslims doubled between 2012 and 2015, and included such events as arson of a mosque in Hamilton, the attempted arson of another in Montreal, and the vandalizing of mosques in Ottawa and Quebec City. This trend seems unlikely to change.

Clearly, we need to do far more than adopt a motion that is, in Khalid’s words, “merely asking, very nicely, for the government to ask the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to study this issue.”

Beyond countering public demonstrations, we need to ingrain anti-racism into our education and cultivate it as a pillar of this country’s identity. One way to begin that giant task is to join the call for a national day of remembrance against Islamophobia.

After the Jan. 29 Quebec City mosque attack, a coalition of Muslim associations, organizations, and leaders released a joint letter of recommendations for all three levels of government. It calls for cities to boost police training on hate crimes, for provinces to create anti-racism directorates and mandatory secondary school courses on xenophobia and racism, and for the federal government to mark Jan. 29 as a day of remembrance.

Many seek to write off the Quebec City mosque shooting as an aberration, as the unpredictable actions of a psychopath, where the victims just happened to be Muslim. Marking the date of the Quebec City mosque attack would provide a permanent counter to such thinking.

Almost 30 years ago, another lone gunman entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal and killed 14 women, and injured another 10 women and 4 men. At the time, feminists had to counter a narrative of random violence. Then, like now, people had to fight to call the attack what it was: a hate crime. The Polytechnique massacre lives on in our memory and continues to shape our culture thanks to their struggle.

The memory of the massacre is public and present, and it has shifted how we think about violence against women.

In 1991, the federal government declared Dec. 6 the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Every year on that date, classes learn about the massacre and bring violence against women into the curriculum. A generation of Canadians has grown up learning and asking questions about it. Cities and towns across the country hold vigils in public squares to remember and honour the 19 women, as well the women who continue to be victimized by violence. The memory of the massacre is public and present, and it has shifted how we think about violence against women.

A day of remembrance against Islamophobia could do the same. It is not a quick fix, but it could very well be an opportunity to change our culture in the long term.

James Hutt is a climate justice, labour and social activist. He is the former director of the Nova Scotia Health Coalition and previously worked as the Water Campaigner for Sierra Club Atlantic. He is also a past member of the Canadian Youth Delegation to the United Nations Climate Negotiations. Follow him on Twitter @JamesRHutt.

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