On Christchurch anniversary, remember Canada has its own problems with far-right and racism

This column is an opinion by Neha Ahmed, a public health practitioner and organizer working to address issues of Islamophobia, racism, immigrant and refugee health and other areas of social justice. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On March 15, 2019, two mosques were attacked in Christchurch, New Zealand, resulting in the deaths of 51 people and leaving 49 injured. The accused gunman, a self-described white supremacist, has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to stand trial in June.

A year later, I can still vividly recall following news of the attack from Edmonton and thinking about my family in Toronto, many of whom would also have been attending mosque that day for Friday prayers.

The news of fellow Muslims being gunned down while at prayer filled me with quiet despair. But I was not surprised that such an act had taken place.

As I spoke to family and friends and went online to seek information, this lack of surprise was a strong undercurrent among the public expressions of grief. And it is perhaps one of the most damning indictments of the current political moment.

The rise of racist, white-supremacist and anti-Muslim rhetoric around the globe has continued apace. One of the same Christchurch mosques that was attacked last year recently received a threatening message, for example.

Sadly, Muslims are no longer surprised that they are being attacked for simply practicing their faith — even in Canada, one of the most multicultural countries in the world.

Canada has not been immune to this phenomenon of rising hatred. In 2017, a mosque in Quebec was the target of a killing spree that took the lives of six people and solidified the dangerous atmosphere of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country.

The six victims of the Quebec Mosque shooting, clockwise from left: Mamadou Tanou Barry, Azzeddine Soufiane, Abdelkrim Hassane, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti and Khaled Belkacemi (CBC)

It is estimated that there are more than 100 far-right and white supremacist groups scattered all across Canada.

The efforts of researchers and community organizers have indicated that some of these groups are seeking to arm and train themselves for combat, and that their rhetoric is disturbingly violent. Hate groups have held rallies in cities across the country, spreading their vitriol. And for the first time in decades, there is now an officially registered neo-Nazi party in Canada.

In fact, news of Canadian political actors displaying hateful behaviour or support for extremist views online and offline is seemingly so commonplace, it barely registers in the public discourse. As a case in point, during the 2019 provincial election in Alberta, PressProgress published a list of 30 candidates accused of promoting hateful views against a range of minority and cultural groups.

In the 2019 federal election campaign, conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign manager was Hamish Marshall, a key figure at Rebel Media, the far-right media house known for its anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant leanings.

Maxim Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada also have a history of deeply troubling connections and rhetoric regarding the far-right. And among the signatories supporting the PPC’s official registration as a federal party were the leader of a former U.S. neo-Nazi group called Soldiers of Odin and an official of Pegida Canada, a far-right anti-Islam organization.

Soldiers of Odin at an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam protest in Toronto on March 19, 2017. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Equally troubling are statistics such as a 2017 Radio Canada poll showing that 74 per cent of people surveyed favoured a “Canadian values test” for immigrants. The idea of a test was the brainchild of conservative politician Kellie Leitch, who was also instrumental to the “Barbaric Cultural Practices” tip line proposed by the Harper government in 2015, an idea whose anti-Muslim dog whistle is hard to miss.

These incidents are not unconnected. Our daily experiences are steeped in messaging that effectively paints Muslims as latent threats, to be surveilled, distrusted and suspected.

A 2019 Ipsos survey, for example, found that three in 10 Canadians incorrectly believed that Muslims in Canada followed Sharia law instead of Canadian law. Muslims in Canada are increasingly portrayed as the suspicious “other,” required to prove their patriotism and their “moderateness” over and over again.

Take the issue of the ban on face coverings in Quebec. Or the furor over M103, a relatively tame bill condemning all forms of racism, including Islamophobia. Or the passage of Bill 21 in Quebec in 2019, which aims to ban certain groups of public sector workers from wearing religious symbols and is seen as targeting Muslim women in particular.

People hold up signs during a demonstration against Bill 21 in Montreal on Oct. 6, 2019. The controversial Quebec secularism law bans some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The targeting of Muslims is not just about overtly violent attacks. It is also about the insidious impressions that have set roots in the minds of everyday people who have been exposed to a steady diet of anti-Muslim rhetoric from all fronts. It’s about how ubiquitous the fear of Muslims has become.

It also behooves us to remember that hate spread by far-right extremists has never been restricted to one group. Although anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish views are among the most common, far-right and white supremacist groups in Canada have targeted immigrants and refugees, women, LGBTQ communities, black communities and other minorities.

Lukewarm sympathy and the talk of diversity and inclusion that are on display time and again, particularly after tragedy has struck, are not sufficient to defeat the rise of far-right ideology. And especially not when the political machinery of the country has proven repeatedly that it is willing to tap into these sentiments for its own gain.

Overcoming the rise of the far-right and of Islamophobia requires Canada to engage deeply and honestly with its own entrenched racism and far-right extremism.


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