Why well-intentioned calls to unite Canadians fail to recognize our homegrown Islamophobia.
Friday's executive order from President Trump to halt all refugee admissions and temporarily bar people from seven Muslim-majority countries has sparked protests across the US, and drawn condemnation from the wider world.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, fresh from committing snafus on his Townhall Tour—which appears to be a mitigation strategy for his declining popularity—declared Canada to be a safe haven for refugees and those fleeing terror, his timely tweet unleashing a very hopeful #WelcomeToCanada sentiment over the weekend.
Being Canadians, and never wanting to waste an opportunity to peg ourselves as better than our neighbour down south, Trudeau's tweet was followed by a deluge of pledges declaring our superiority, which flooded social media without much critical thought.
That was until last night, when a shooter opened fire on people praying in a mosque in Ste-Foy, Quebec—claiming six lives and injuring more than a dozen others, five of whom remain in hospital at this time.
The same fervour proclaiming Canada as holier-than-you-know-who literally hours ago turned to statements of "shock" and "dismay" alongside declarations of "This is not my Canada" and "Trump's poison is affecting us." All of which were seemingly oblivious to the many who expressed markedly contrary reactions, like some of the tweets sent out when the news about Quebec was first posted:
It's as if we have our own version of US's "isolated incident" lens when we look at homegrown terrorism. That instead of facing these incidents as symptoms of broader and much entrenched problems, we gloss over them by treating them as anomalies with no systemic or sustaining roots.
We are fond of saccharine-laced rhetoric like "We have to stand united as a nation" when pressed for concrete action plans to address growing anti-immigrant sentiments. We say things like "Today we are all Muslims," which is frankly insulting and absolutely ineffective in raising people's empathy, if that's what it aims to do. Platitudes like this are problematic because they make safety and equity conditional on similarities that don't exist. We are not all Muslims. This framing is precisely why well-intentioned progressives end up making little headway in creating conditions of equity and dismantling racism, anti-blackness and xenophobia in their communities. This liberal sentiment of trying to force "common ground" language to appeal to people's empathy is erasure and codified assimilation, plain and simple.
Many were shocked at the brazen Islamophobia in Trump's choice of which seven countries' immigrants will be disallowed entry into the US. However, it's worth remembering that not too long ago, we witnessed a targeted cultural attack on Muslims from then Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney when they tried to ban the niqab from citizenship ceremonies. Or when former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois pushed a "Quebec values" policy in an attempt to ban "all" religious symbols—except those of Christians, and the amount of traction that attempt gained.
And although Quebec has a particularly vehement xenophobic and Islamophobic record in these last few years, being an almost entirely conservative province when we look outside Montreal, this tide is not limited to Quebec. Starting early last year, there was a wave of physical assaults on Muslim women wearing hijabs - like the ones in Toronto and also London, Ontario - while a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario was set on fire. The Muslim community of Cold Lake, Alberta reeled from not one but two incidents of vandalism between 2014 and 2015.
This Saturday, Maher Arar stepped in to remind us that words mean little when not backed by actions, that the Canadian government also has a sordid history of being selectively benevolent. Arar was a Canadian citizen deported to Syria and tortured by its state intelligence service on the completely unfounded assumption that he was involved in terrorism. He warned Canadian Muslims to be wary of what could be empty assurances for some given that the Canadian government had done little to assist him in the year and a half of his unlawful detention and torture.
It is imperative that we recognize that Canadians are not above deep-seated bigotry and hatred within our communities. This is not because of Trump, or the hate-mongering politicians currently vying for the Conservative party leadership, preening to be crowned Trump-lite with their screening calls for "Canadian values."
As a proud Canadian who also happens to be a woman of colour, an immigrant from Pakistan, and as someone raised a Muslim, the current climate is definitely terrifying. But what is more concerning is the ease with which Canadians are ready to spout heartwarming rhetoric about unity yet avoid openly addressing the casual xenophobia faced by so many of us daily. Canada is one election away from possibly becoming another version of what's happening down south. It is our responsibility to stay vigilant and resist the cozy comfort of merely spouting words that sound poetic yet have zero impact on policy or public discourse. Our violent history as settlers on Indigenous lands underscores our responsibility to uphold equity for those facing institutional discrimination.
Sunday's attack, though possibly emboldened by the rise of fascism in the US, is hardly an opportunity for us to gloat about how much better we are, because a closer look at our recent years will tell us a very alarmingly dissonant story.
Let's stop our infatuation with hashtags, and refuse to settle for lip service that erases and trivializes the lived experiences of many Canadians. Our communities, our national media, and, most of all, our vulnerable citizens, deserve truth and transparency about how far we have to go to own up to the hate living and festering within our own borders. May our next actions help us earn the pride in diversity Canada is much too quick to claim.
Follow Saadia on Twitter