Multiculturalism has been a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian identity for 50 years. Speaking on the occasion of this date, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “Canada became the first country in the world to adopt a policy of multiculturalism… While we have made important progress toward a more inclusive and equitable society since then, much work remains to be done. Every day, far too many racialized Canadians, Indigenous peoples, and religious minorities continue to face systemic racism, discrimination, and a lack of resources and opportunity.”
An alumna of The Shoe Project SAIMA S. HUSSAIN reflects on the causes of Islamophobia in Canada.
As a Muslim and as a Settler in this land that we call Canada, I greeted the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Multicultural Policy — with a heavy heart.
On June 6, 2021, four members of the Afzaal family were killed in an act of hate-fuelled violence in London, Ontario. Nine-year-old Fayez became an orphan before he even fully understood what that word meant.
Politicians and media channels called it an act of terrorism, everyone exclaimed that this is not our Canada. But we had heard these words before. Frankly, these assurances sound hollow right now. We all need to take a close look at our country. We will see what has now become too apparent to ignore: Canada has an Islamophobia problem.
That sounds harsh, I know. It is so tempting to blame “a few bad apples” then focus on all the positive stories of support and solidarity that take place after incidents of hate-motivated violence.
In fact, some of the key players responsible for creating anti-Muslim hate in public discourse over the years attended the vigil held for the Afzaal family outside London Muslim Mosque. Conservative leader Erin O’ Toole condemned extreme hatred and called it “an Islamophobic act of terror”. Yet in 2017 after a gunman opened fire inside a Quebec City mosque leaving six people dead, his party overwhelmingly opposed (81 nays) a federal non-binding motion to condemn Islamophobia. Moreover, his insidious slogan “Take Back Canada” (from whom?) during the 2019 federal election was a dog-whistle much like the obnoxious “Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” stunt by his predecessor Stephen Harper’s in the run-up to the 2015 election. Politicians like them have actively and intentionally been “othering” Canadian Muslims in a cynical effort to drum up the popular vote.
“We all need to take a close look at our country. We will see what has now become too apparent to ignore: Canada has an Islamophobia problem.”
At least Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet had the decency to not speak publicly at the vigil. This province has enforced Bill 21 that bars the wearing of religious symbols by public service workers, including teachers, police officers, and government officials. As recently as April 2021, the Quebec Superior Court acknowledged “the evidence [that] undoubtedly shows that the effects of Law 21 will be felt negatively above all by Muslim women. On the one hand by violating their religious freedom, and on the other hand by also violating their freedom of expression, because clothing is both expressions, pure and simple, and can also constitute a manifestation of religious belief.” Yet Bill 21 is “legal” in the Quebec because government invoked the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause.
Islamophobic ideas result in a skewed representation of Canadian Muslims. These ideas are shaped in large part by media outlets and personalities that perpetuate stereotypes and stoke fear by insisting that Muslim violence is more prevalent than it actually is. How does the media do this?
When the perpetrator is Muslim, terms like “Islamist”, “radicalized” and “terror cell” along with graining black and white mugshots of the accused dominate media channels for days. But when the perpetrator is not Muslim, you will hear “lone wolf” and “mental illness” in the conversation accompanied by a colourful, smiling image of the accused in a casual setting.
According to Haroon Siddiqui, the Toronto Star’s editor emeritus, back in 2016 publisher of the Toronto Star John Cruickshank admitted that “a big segment of the Canadian media has been peddling flat-out racism and bigotry against Canadian Muslims.”
Dear readers, if you are serious about helping to counter the Islamophobia that is present in our midst then I hope that you will do at least one, or ideally all of the following:
- hold our leaders accountable when they scapegoat Muslims for political gains,
- challenge the representation of Muslims in media coverage,
- interrupt conversations that perpetuate stereotypes about Muslims
That last one will probably be the hardest. If a friend, family member, or colleague makes an anti-Muslim comment, it is so much easier to ignore it, so that you don’t make waves. Challenging Islamophobic comments requires effort; but remember that individual actions have the greatest collective impact. This is especially true if there are children in your life, because they are watching how you respond – or remain quiet. If you’re uncomfortable with what someone just said, simply say “that doesn’t sound appropriate” or ask where they read or heard that “fact”? The goal is not to win the argument, but to signal that what they just said is not acceptable.
Together we can come closer to understanding multiculturalism as cultural diversity that enriches our society. Multiculturalism and diversity are central to Canada’s present and future. The enormous wealth of cultural traditions, religious beliefs, languages, clothes, food, and entertainment found across our country, encourages the boundless creativity, learning, and discovery that is the envy of the world. For in the words of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, if Canada is to thrive, it can only do so “in mutual respect and in love for one another.”
Saima Hussain was born in Karachi, Pakistan. She holds an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto and an MLIS from the University of Western Ontario. She is the author of The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women (2016) and The Arab World Thought of It: Inventions, Innovations and Amazing Facts (2013). Saima is a librarian in the public library system and continues her involvement in arts and community projects.