At a town hall in Saskatchewan on Thursday, an attendee challenged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about why his administration has admitted many Muslim refugees, claiming that “they want to kill us.”
In response, Trudeau launched into a passionate defense of Canada’s “extraordinary diversity,” saying that its welcoming stance towards refugees is “one of the things that has made Canada great.”
“We are welcoming people who are being turned away from other countries for the wrong reasons and it is an incredible benefit to Canada,” Trudeau said during the town hall at the University of Regina. “We are still understanding that immigration is an economic benefit to Canadians. It makes our communities more resilient, it makes our country stronger and it will continue to.”
The question about immigration came from an audience member who said his family had been living in the Regina area for generations. The man asked Trudeau what he was doing about Canada’s “open border.”
“You’re talking about my freedom and everybody’s lives ... everybody who put their life down on the line, and you’re saying, ‘Eh, it’s OK, it won’t happen to us,’” the man said. “It’s happening in France and it’s happening all over.”
“The people are saying no, because these two cultures will not mix,” the attendee added.
The man specified that the “cultures” he was talking about were Islam and Christianity ― a statement that elicited boos and heckling from the crowd.
“They’ve openly stated they want to kill us, and you’re letting them in,” the man told Trudeau.
After pausing to collect his thoughts, Trudeau said, “Canada is a country that was built by immigrants.”
The prime minister then delivered a brief history lesson, pointing out that the land had first been home to indigenous First Nations people before “waves” of Europeans fleeing religious persecution and wars arrived to “build better lives for themselves.”
“These people always want the same thing: To be able to live in peace and raise their families, to create a better future for themselves and their communities,” Trudeau said. “This is what generations and generations of folks have done in Canada.”
Trudeau has prioritized increasing Canada’s refugee admissions since his earliest days as prime minister. The country has resettled more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since his administration came into power in the fall of 2015. Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, said in October that the country hopes to increase annual refugee admissions to 51,700 in 2021, CTV News reported.
Trudeau said Thursday that Canada’s immigration system owes some of its success to its private refugee sponsorship program, which has long been viewed as the global “gold standard” for similar community-led efforts. The program allows church groups, families, and other community groups to privately sponsor and help resettle refugees.
Studies have shown that Canadians generally have positive attitudes about immigration and believe immigrants have a positive economic impact on their country.
Trudeau told the town hall attendee that because of Canada’s aging population, it needs new immigrants to help build its future. He refuted the idea that the country has “an open border policy,” stating that its immigration system does a “very good job” of performing security and screening checks on new arrivals.
“There are always reasons to be concerned and reasons to be worried about someone different arriving in your neighborhood,” Trudeau said. “What Canadians have always known is that it’s better for all of us if we are good neighbors.”
Leila Nasr, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told HuffPost that comments like the attendee’s are deeply concerning to the country’s Muslims ― especially in light of the Quebec City mosque shooting, which is approaching its second anniversary. The attack, carried out by a white, right-wing extremist, left six people dead.
While it’s important to acknowledge the economic contributions that immigrants make to Canada, Nasr said it’s also important to tackle the “foundations” of Islamophobia by working to create greater cultural understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.
“When we think about the real implications of the sorts of fears and anxieties the man expressed, we quickly see that Islamophobia cannot be rooted out using simple economic arguments about how Muslims and other immigrants benefit our country,” Nasr told HuffPost in an email. “We have to do so much more.”
This article has been updated with comments from Leila Nasr.