Not long after what police called a targeted hate crime against a Muslim family in London, Ont., left four dead and a nine-year-old boy orphaned, the cries of grief morphed into calls for action.
Community advocates and politicians alike stood at a podium Tuesday night calling for steps to be taken to tackle rising Islamophobia. Because while there has been progress, “the government needs to do much more,” advocates say.
“It’s urgent that we address hate in Canada because all of us, no matter what our backgrounds are, no matter our skin color, our faith, any type of characteristic, whoever we are, we all have a right to fully be ourselves in Canada,” said Amira Elghawaby, a board member of Canadian Anti Hate Network.
What are advocates calling for?
Spearheaded by the Nation Council for Canadian Muslims (NCCM), advocates have called for all levels of government — federal, provincial, territorial, municipal — to come together for a National Action Summit on Islamophobia.
“Acts of violence, Islamophobia, need to be confronted through new measures, ” said Mustafa Farooq, CEO of NCCM.
“We need a cross jurisdictional approach here. It’s not just going to be a federal response. It’s going to be a provincial response…We need everyone in Canada to come together, our leaders to come together and bring us real policy change.”
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In order to tackle the spaces where many Canadians become radicalized, Farooq said he’s looking forward to seeing promised federal legislation aimed at quashing online hate. The NCCM helped the government craft the soon-to-be proposed bill, he said.
“I think Canadians need to see a balanced, appropriate regulation of social media organizations. I think we all recognize that there are uncontrolled, crazy things on social media that lead to real world violence, and we continue to see it again and again,” he said.
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However, Farooq warned, online hate regulation is “not going to be a panacea.”
“Before the origin of social media, there were white supremacist groups. After the creation of social media, there have been white supremacist groups,” he said.
Farooq’s demand was clear: hate-based organizations can’t be allowed to exist in Canada.
“We need to stand up and say, if there’s an organization that calls itself ‘the Klan’ in Canada, they should not be allowed to function. This should not be a conversation that we need to have,” Farooq said.
“This is common sense. It needs to happen. It’s very simple.”
There’s work to be done within communities, too, advocates say. Roughly two-thirds of hate crimes go unreported, according to Statistics Canada. One of the things cities can do, according to Elghawaby, is set up channels to make reporting these crimes easier.
“The reason why it’s so important to make it easier for people to report what they’re experiencing, and the victimization that they’re experiencing, is that really allows us to have a better snapshot and understanding of what is happening in our very own neighborhoods,” Elghawaby said.
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Hate crimes have been on the rise in Canada, with a nine per cent increase in anti-Muslim attacks in 2019 compared to the previous year, according to available information from Statistics Canada. The number of anti-Muslim hate crimes dropped to 166 incidents in 2018 before rising to 181 in 2019.
On top of that, groups with extremist views have become more prevalent in recent years, according to a 2020 report from the U.K. based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. That report found 6,660 accounts, channels and pages associated with right wing extremism in Canada.
What has the government done?
The government had its first major public debate on Islamophobia in 2017 when Liberal MP Iqra Khalid tabled a motion, M-103, which called on federal politicians to condemn Islamophobia.
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Khalid brought forward the motion shortly after a gunman walked into a Quebec City mosque and opened fire on people who were praying, killing six people and injuring 19 others.
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What followed was a debate over what “Islamophobia” means, with critics calling it intentionally vague and an attempt to curb free speech. The motion ultimately passed, but many MPs — including now-Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole — voted against it.
Canada has made strides since that 2017 motion, according to Elghawaby.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that there has been progress when it comes to addressing Islamophobia in Canada,” she said.
“If you think back just to four years ago around the Quebec City mosque massacre, some politicians were actually reluctant to even use the term Islamophobia.”
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In the years since, the government has taken some concrete actions to try to tackle rising hate and Islamophobia.
This year, four ideologically-motivated right-wing extremist groups were added to Canada’s terror list — an action with serious consequences enshrined in the Criminal Code.
Banks immediately de-risk groups that are added to terror lists, meaning members of these organizations will see their bank account closed and won’t be able to use these financial institutions again.
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The government has also set up something called a Community Resilience Fund, which they say supports research and programming to build Canada’s evidence base, local capability and capacity to counter the radicalization that leads to violence in Canada.
“Hate and intolerance have no place in our society. Canada is stronger because of its diversity and everyone deserves to feel safe wherever they live, work, gather and pray,” said Craig MacBride, a senior spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, in an emailed statement.
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MacBride added that prime minister tasked multiple departments — including public safety — with addressing “hate groups, online hate and harassment.”
“In support of this mandate commitment, the government is currently exploring how we can ensure greater accountability and transparency for online platforms,” MacBride said.
“We want to make it an active duty for platforms to monitor and rapidly remove illegal content before it causes more harm.”
Blair recently held roundtables with other cabinet ministers to discuss “ways to raise public awareness of racism and hate, and how to best hold perpetrators to account,” MacBride added.
Islamophobia in politics
Still, the government has its own sins to atone for when it comes to the rise in hate and Islamophobia, according to the advocates — but some of that work is already underway.
During the 2015 election campaign, the Conservatives suggested the government establish what they called a “barbaric cultural practices tip line,” which would have empowered neighbours to call the authorities if they thought the family next door was engaged in so-called “barbaric” actions. They also proposed to ban the niqab, a cultural covering some Muslim women wear.
In a statement published on Tuesday, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner reflected on her silence on the policies as one of the “biggest regrets” of her political career.
“Those policies were wrong. To the Muslim community, I’m deeply sorry for not fighting it then. I can assure you I won’t make the same mistake again,” she said.
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Today, the Liberal government is also being pressed over its position on Quebec’s Bill 21, which bars the wearing of religious symbols by some public service workers in positions of authority, including teachers and police officers, while on the job.
While Trudeau has said he personally disagrees with the law, he has defended Quebec’s provincial right to put forward its own legislation.
“Provinces have the right to put forward bills that align with their priorities. I think people have a right to question those and go to court to defend their rights, as is happening right now,” he said when asked whether the bill encourages discrimination.
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This statement does not go far enough, according to advocates.
“It is absolutely imperative for every single politician, every leader to speak absolutely — without any type of nuance — to say that Bill 21 is a racist bill. It is discriminatory,” Elghawaby said.
As conversations continue as to how best to tackle Islamophobia, communities continue to feel the pain as flare-ups of hatred take innocent lives.
“Every time these things happen, it’s like we get more experienced in terms of understanding how to emotionally grapple with this, because … we just have to keep living,” said Farooq, fighting tears.
“How are we supposed to keep knowing that this happens in Canada?”
Elghawaby said Canadians can’t give up the push for change.
“It is something that we need to keep working on and addressing,” she said.
“If we don’t, the risk is our children are not going to be able to live in a society where everyone is treated fairly. And that really hampers our ability to feel welcome in our own homes.”
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