The vigils held across Canada in the aftermath of the Québec City mosque shooting were beautiful. Watching on my computer screen from my temporary home in the United Kingdom, I felt I was missing something profoundly Canadian as thousands of people from around the country turned out in the bitter cold to stand in solidarity with Canadian Muslims.
Every few minutes, the feed I was watching flicked to a new city. Québec, where the melted wax of hundreds of burning candles cascaded down a snow bank dotted with flowers and notes of condolence. Montréal, where mittened hands held up messages of support that were partly obscured by wisps of breath mingling in the frigid air. Toronto, where candlelight glistened off tearful faces framed with toques and scarves, sometimes pulled over hijabs. Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Iqaluit. For one rare moment in this vast and diverse country of ours, Canadians everywhere came together to assert our unity in the face of an attack that sought to tear us apart.
And now, with the last candles extinguished, the country will move on. The vigils will end. The cameras will stop rolling. The faces of the victims will disappear from our newsfeeds, though the face of the accused may linger a few weeks longer. And bit by bit, the tragedy will fade from the national memory.
This is the familiar script of tragedy. People die. People grieve. People forget. And then, sometimes, people remember again, belatedly realizing that the tragedy was an early sign of a troubling trend when a similar incident occurs years later.
But for the first time that I can recall, Canadians are not following the normal script. The usual outpouring of grief has been tinged with anger, disgust and more than a hint of shame. The harmonious façade we fooled ourselves into believing was shattered, and this has forced many of us to recognize that the supposedly open and welcoming Canada we cherish is not the same Canada that millions of marginalized Canadians experience every day.
We often let our politicians get away with potentially radicalizing rhetoric merely because we assume that their white target audience isn't dangerous.
This acknowledgment of our country's demons is long overdue. When confronted with a tragedy, it can be reflexive to pin the evil on those whom we already hate. It is more difficult to acknowledge that it might have originated in people or places that we love. But it is in Canada that hate crimes against Muslims have more than doubled over the past three years, and it is Canadians who hold a 54 per cent negative view of Islam. It was a Canadian prime minister who implied that Canadian mosques are breeding grounds for Islamic extremists, a Canadian legislator who claimed that niqabs needed to be banned because they could be used to hide lethal weapons, and a Canadian town that adopted a bylaw prohibiting the stoning of women in public (as if that weren't already illegal).
Similar Islamophobic policies and attitudes have proliferated throughout the Western world, and Canadians are no more or less virtuous than citizens of any other country. But if we are to combat the culture that fostered the Québec shooter's poisonous ideology, we must own up to the fact that bit by bit, our actions and words -- and inaction and silence -- have fashioned a culture that, if not overtly Islamophobic, has certainly been permissive of Islamophobic ideology.
The good news is that constructing a national character is a dynamic and continuous process. Just as we constructed a culture that is permissive of Islamophobia, so we can tear it down.
Our newfound solidarity must be more than just a response to an unspeakable tragedy.
We can start by emphatically speaking back against the dog-whistle Islamophobia that pervades our everyday discourse. When we stay silent in the face of Islamophobic rhetoric, we tacitly agree to the moral relegation of Muslims, and it is this dehumanization that validates the destructive views of people like the Québec shooter.
Our silence also sustains the superficial view of Muslims that predominates in the public imagination. There are over a million Muslims in Canada, but we don't speak to them as parents, lovers, students, mentors, artists or community activists. Instead, when we talk about Muslims it is almost always in relation to terrorism or "reasonable accommodation," which in turn reinforces the mistaken belief that radicalization is an exclusively Muslim phenomenon.
Over the past 30 years, there have been 120 violent events in Canada perpetrated by white supremacists and only seven by Islamic extremists, but we don't have the same conversations about the radicalization of young white men that we do about the radicalization of young brown and black men. This racially warped view of the biggest threats to Canadian security means that we often let our politicians get away with potentially radicalizing rhetoric merely because we assume that their white target audience isn't dangerous.
This has been demonstrated most recently by our tepid response to Kellie Leitch, who is trying to catapult herself to the leadership of the federal Conservative Party by openly courting racists and proposing dog-whistle "anti-Canadian values screening" for new immigrants.
While Leitch has tried to distance herself from her earlier rhetoric in the aftermath the Québec attack by belatedly mentioning that her values test wouldn't only apply to Muslims, her vehement opposition to the government's Motion 103 condemning Islamophobia -- complete with a stock photo of a gagged model whose brown eyes were digitally altered to Aryan blue -- clearly reveals who it is she's really targeting. The words of our leaders help shape the character of our society, and we have not been forceful enough in our denunciations of Canadian politicians who seek to exploit fear and prejudice for their own personal political gain.
The simple fact is that we haven't done enough. We haven't done enough make Canadian multiculturalism more than a hollow façade, and we bear collective responsibility for tolerating a culture from which hateful ideologies can emerge and grow. But the unyielding solidarity of Canadians over the past few weeks has given me hope. Hope that this solidarity can be the foundation for a radically inclusive society, and hope that this time "we're sorry" is an acknowledgment of our faults and a promise to do better, rather than just an empty platitude. If we really want to build a better Canada, our newfound solidarity must be more than just a response to an unspeakable tragedy.
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