Politicians must be careful not to fan flames of racist and xenophobic elements within Canadian society over the Syrian refugee issue, the premiers of the two largest provinces said Friday.
The unvarnished caution from Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Ontario's Kathleen Wynne follows days of disturbing incidents involving aggression towards Canadian Muslims in the wake of the deadly Paris terrorist attacks that claimed at least 130 lives last week.
With the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowing to press ahead with its campaign promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year's end, questions about security checks for the newcomers have frequently curdled into something much less benign.
"What we can't give in to, I think, is allowing security to mask racism," Wynne said to loud applause at the Canada2020 policy conference in Ottawa, with Couillard nodding agreement.
"That's the danger and that somehow talking about security allows us to tap into that racist vein, when that isn't who we are," Wynne said.
Couillard said Canada is not uniquely better or worse than any other society.
"We have those two devils within our society: racism and xenophobia. They exist," said the Quebec premier.
"And it is the responsibility of political leaders – and I got into trouble a few days ago because I said that publicly – it is the responsibility of political leaders not to feed the fire in a very negative way."
The 11-week federal election campaign that resulted in a resounding Liberal majority last month included highly charged debates over the wearing of face-coverings by less than a handful of Muslim women at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies and a Conservative proposal for a "barbaric cultural practices" hotline where it was suggested neighbours might report suspect behaviour.
The Paris terrorist attacks, for which Islamic extremists have claimed responsibility, combined with Trudeau's logistically daunting plan for the speedy acceptance of Syrian refugees, has proven a potent cocktail that's reignited the worst of the election debate and more.
In Toronto this week, two women wearing hijabs on the subway were harassed and pushed. A Muslim student at Ottawa's Carleton University reported she found a note in her mailbox saying: "Canada is no place for immigrants or terrorists. Go back home."
A fire at a mosque in Peterborough, Ont., is being investigated as a hate crime, and in Montreal police arrested a man after a YouTube video showed someone wearing a Joker mask saying one Arab would be murdered in Quebec every week.
The irony, according to federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, is that what really strikes a blow against the ideology of Islamic terrorists is a free and democratic society welcoming Syria's refugees.
"This crisis is not just about a humanitarian project," Sajjan said Friday at the opening of the International Security Forum in Halifax.
"This also sends a great message to ISIS that you might create this environment for us, but we will not let you take advantage of this. By doing our part for this, we are actually hitting ISIS in a different way as well."
The refugee security concerns are overblown, said Couillard and Wynne.
Quebec accepts about 50,000 immigrants annually, Couillard noted, and had already "budgeted for" some 3,600 Syrian refugees prior to the federal Liberal pledge, which he said could increase that total by another 2,000.
"It's not such a fantastic or difficult target," said the Quebec premier.