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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

The face Canada showed the world Add to ...

I put on my poppy a few days early this year. I suppose a lot of people did. This Remembrance Day, we’re wearing them for two freshly fallen soldiers, Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. They loved their country and they died because they wore its uniform.

It is a strange new world we’re in. Twice in one week, a deadly foreign conflict came to our backyard. That shakes a nation. The trick is to protect ourselves without losing our confidence and our values. How are we doing so far?

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s an amazing video you should check out online. It was made a week after the attack on Parliament. In it, a York University student named Omar Albach and two friends set out to gauge people’s attitudes toward Muslims. They took their experiment to the streets of Hamilton, on the eve of Cpl. Cirillo’s funeral, where emotions were running high. One friend was dressed in a traditional Muslim robe; the other played an Islamophobic bigot. They wanted to see whose side people would take.

What they got wasn’t quite what they expected.

As the bigot berates the Muslim, the passersby get mad. “You can’t stereotype and judge people by their clothes,” one man says heatedly. “Or their nationality or anything else, you know what I mean?”

One woman tells the bigot that what happened to Cpl. Cirillo was “awful and tragic,” then says “I don’t think that’s any reason to persecute someone just because of what they’re wearing.”

You’ve gotta love the crowd. They’re pure Hamilton. Tim Hortons drinkers, guys in flannel shirts and baseball hats. The video ends abruptly when a bystander punches the bigot in the nose.

The video went viral, nearly three million hits as I write this, and made news around the world. Mr. Albach, the 18-year-old director, was interviewed on CNN. Watch: Canadians Stand Up To An Anti-Muslim ‘Bigot,’ said an admiring Washington Post headline. People in Saudi Arabia sent the link back to friends in Canada.

“I was surprised at the extent to which they went to support the gentleman in traditional clothing,” Mr. Albach acknowledged in an interview with the CBC. “I was surprised there wasn’t at least one person …”

So much for anti-Muslim sentiment in Canada.

Sure, stuff happens. It always does. During the recent Toronto election campaign, some Muslim candidates’ signs were defaced and a guy driving a Purolator truck allegedly shouted insults at some election workers pounding signs into lawns. This prompted the Toronto Star to write a story headlined Islamophobia: The Ugly Side Of The Municipal Election?

Actually, I don’t think we need to worry. Purolator launched an investigation on the spot and the president of the company called the candidate to personally apologize.

Other stuff happened. Shortly after the attack on Parliament, the mosque in Cold Lake, Alta., was vandalized. People arrived for Friday prayers to discover that someone had thrown a brick through a window and sprayed the words “GO HOME” across the front of the building.

Here’s what happened next. As soon as word got out, townspeople showed up with scrub brushes, paint remover and flowers. They made new signs with Canadian flags saying “You are home.” Local contractors showed up, along with soldiers in uniform from the nearby military base. Ajaz Quraishi, president of the Islamic Society of Cold Lake, said he didn’t think the incident had anything to do with hostility in the community. “Maybe kids did it, I don’t know who did it, but it could happen to anybody,” he told the Edmonton Journal. “… One guy came up and said, ‘You know, I’m a redneck, but I don’t like this.’ He came and hugged me.”

When I wear the poppy, I sometimes think of my dad and grandfather, who fought so that some day we could live in a nation just like this. But why us? Why are we the lucky ones? How have we managed to escape the racial and ethnic strife that plagues most of the rest of the world?

One reason is that Canada is so new. Almost all of us are immigrants – newcomers ourselves not so long ago. And our dual English-French identities have been a great test of our ability to accommodate our differences without tearing each other to shreds. So far, so good. We’ve learned a lot from that.

Our identity is not defined by blood, or by our sense of destiny. We have no concept of Volk. We’re just folks. We don’t care who you are or where you came from or who or what you worship, as long as you share our good Canadian bourgeois values. Don’t litter. Send your kids to school. Wear a poppy.

We are blessed with a lot of elbow room, and we have borders that are relatively impermeable. No massive waves of refugees and migrants wash up on our shores. We never imported guest workers who we thought would go home, but didn’t.

Unlike Europe, our immigrants come from all corners of the planet. We’ve dodged the problem of large subgroups that self-ghettoize and don’t assimilate. Here, everyone gets thrown together and winds up at Tim Hortons (or maybe Starbucks). And the locals are extremely friendly, which means that the whole world wants to come here, so we get our pick. We have created a virtuous circle of tolerance and openness that is rivalled only by Australia, a nation just like ours, only with a better climate and a worse accent.

As my friend and colleague Sheema Khan said of Mr. Albach’s video, “This is the face that Canada is showing to the world.” After two terrorist attacks, people punched out the bigots and took flowers to the mosque. No wonder we’re the envy of the world.

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