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Canada Muslim MPs express faith in Canadian tolerance amid anti-Islamic sentiment

In 2004, Yasmin Ratansi was the first Muslim woman elected to the Commons, and the lone Muslim Canadian MP

It's been a sad and sickening week for Yasmin Ratansi, the new Liberal MP for the Toronto riding where a woman was assaulted for wearing a hijab as she was on her way to pick up her son from school.

"Just because she is wearing a hijab does that make her a terrorist?" says Ms. Ratansi, an Ismaili Muslim who represents Don Valley East. "This is awful. How do you protect the minorities who have done nothing? To broad brush every Muslim who is peace-loving with some of the rogue elements who do not understand the basic tenets of Islam is sickening …."

In 2004, Ms. Ratansi was the first Muslim woman elected to the Commons. (She was defeated in 2011.) In later elections, the number grew to as many as four MPs.

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Next week, when the new session of Parliament begins, she will be joined by 10 colleagues – nine Liberal MPs (all from Toronto or nearby) and one Conservative MP from Alberta. They come originally from different countries, including Afghanistan, Tanzania, Pakistan and Uganda; four are women.

This is the most Muslim Canadians the chamber has had, and Ms. Ratansi and her Muslim colleagues are trying to balance their responsibilities as new MPs, but also as representatives of a faith that has been underrepresented in Canadian politics. In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, anti-Islamic sentiment has spilled over in Canada, with troubling incidents such as the assault, the harassment of two women in hijabs on a Toronto subway train and the arson at a mosque in Peterborough, Ont.

"In 2004, I had to champion my faith, my gender and the diversity within Islam," says Ms. Ratansi. "Hopefully, the 11 of us will show the diversity in Islam itself, of culture, of the tradition of language and race, and how we all function in a very normal way."

So far, the past week has been anything but normal. The new MPs have been going through what Ms. Ratansi calls "baptism by fire."

It's been a heavy few days for Omar Alghabra, the Liberal MP in Mississauga Centre, who has been talking to constituents, some of whom are scared, especially for their children, after the incidents.

"While I don't want to totally dismiss their anxiety," Mr. Alghabra said, "I want to point out the prevailing way of doing things in our society and point out, hopefully the signs that will comfort them and reassure them …."

So, he tells those constituents, for example, that Canadians came together to raise money to help rebuild the mosque.

In the Willowdale riding, where about 10 per cent of residents are Muslim, rookie MP Ali Ehsassi says there is obvious shock, but his constituents like that Canada has "re-engaged on the international scene."

Iqra Khalid, a Pakistani-Canadian woman who turned 30 on Friday, a month after becoming the Liberal MP for Mississauga-Erin Mills, is concerned about the recent events in France and Canada, but believes the "underlying Islamophobia" will be addressed.

"For the most part, Canadians are very positive people," she says. "When I first moved to Canada in the late '90s, I wore a hijab and I can say that Canada has become a lot more inclusive than it used to be. I see positive change every day."

In 2007, she says, she stopped wearing a hijab – "The hijab, I think, it is a personal choice. I decided to go the other way."

Arif Virani, the new Liberal MP in Parkdale-High Park, in Toronto's west end, sensed anti-Islamic sentiment during the election campaign, well before the attacks.

Mr. Virani came to Canada from Uganda as a refugee in 1972, went to McGill University with Justin Trudeau, became a lawyer and even spent a year in Tanzania as a prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He blames the Conservatives, in part, for taking such a hard line on the niqab issue during the campaign.

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"It emancipated or legitimized hitherto silent intolerant people …," Mr. Virani said.

During the campaign one person told him he wouldn't vote for someone who wasn't born in Canada; he also heard criticism that his party believed in "those women in the mask."

"I think it's both a responsibility but also a duty, that as Islamic members of Parliament now we really need to be in the vanguard of carrying forward a mantle that demonstrates to all Canadians, not just to our constituents in our individual ridings, about what our religion is about and what Canadian people are really about."

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