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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Anyone who uses Canada’s public parks will be familiar with the sight of extended families sprawled under the trees, grilling and chilling. Sometimes they’re playing soccer or spikeball, and some of them are wearing turbans or hijabs. Through my rosy glasses (which have started to slip), these scenes have always given me a sense that the country at least knows how to picnic in harmony.

But since 2021 brought a wave of attacks on Muslims in Canada, the same scene I view as peaceful causes alarm in others. The difference, of course, is that I’m not part of a targeted group. Alisha Aslam, for example, sees something else: “When a family’s having a picnic together, people like me can’t look at them the same way. They have their headscarves on, you know that they’re Muslim. I’m thinking, ‘I hope nothing is going to happen to them.’ ”

Alisha is 16, and she’s just finished Grade 10 at Agincourt Collegiate Institute in Toronto. She’s also a Muslim who’s been alarmed at the tide of Islamophobia she sees in the country and has decided to do something about it.

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Alisha and her family watched the vigil for the Afzaal family together. In early June, four members of the Afzaal family were killed by a driver while out for a walk in London, Ont. The police believe the attack to have been racially motivated, and the suspect is charged with terrorism as well as first-degree murder.

The attack left Alisha shaken and determined to speak out. (She’s been an activist since middle school.) She revived the long-dormant Muslim Students’ Association at her high school. She got to work building a website that listed the prevalence of hate crimes against Muslims and offered ways that allies could help (donating money, attending workshops). She spoke about Islamophobia at the Toronto District School Board’s equity forum.

The alarming news continued to roll in: There were stories from Alberta of Muslim women, most of them Black, being physically attacked, racially abused and having their hijabs pulled off. In the latest assault, two sisters in St. Albert, Alta., were assaulted by a man wielding a knife and yelling racial insults. The National Council of Canadian Muslims recorded at least 14 such attacks on Muslims in Alberta since the beginning of the year.

Alisha doesn’t wear a hijab, but some of her friends do. She’s worried about them, and herself. “They refuse to take it off, which I appreciate,” she says. “It’s scary. It would make sense if they said they didn’t want to wear it anymore. But it’s really empowering that they’re staying strong and keeping it on.”

I’ve always admired activists like Alisha who find their voice when they’re young, who refuse to be cowed or silenced. They’re all over the world now, taking governments to court over climate policies, or demanding a reckoning on racial justice. They make a lot of us old folk uncomfortable, because they have the energy and vision to shape a different world. It’s like we took a perfectly good car, smashed it up, and left them the smoking ruin to rebuild from scratch.

It seems, in other words, rather unfair to leave the cleanup to those who didn’t make the mess. When it comes to the subject of Islamophobia, in particular, there’s a huge amount that could be done, and leadership that could be taken – but the adults in the room are dropping the ball.

For example, the federal Conservative party has a shameful history in the past decade of trying to drum up fears around Muslim Canadians for political gain: Think of the “barbaric cultural practices” hotline from the 2015 campaign trail, or the niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies, or the fact that most Tory MPs voted against the innocuous anti-Islamophobia motion in Parliament in 2017.

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In the wake of the London attack, two Tory MPs, Tim Uppal and Michelle Rempel Garner, came forward to apologize for not pushing back against those policies. But Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, the former federal immigration minister, has not only not apologized, he’s denied having anything to do with the niqab ban that happened on his watch. Adults are supposed to own up to their mistakes. Unless, I suppose, they don’t view them as mistakes at all.

Then there is the politically fraught matter of Quebec’s Bill 21, a hot potato if ever there was one. The bill that bans many civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work has disproportionately affected Muslim women, and is viewed as harmful outside the province as well. Transport Minister Omar Alghabra recently called the bill “state-sanctioned discrimination,” but his boss Justin Trudeau has never said anything equally forceful. Instead the Prime Minister has danced around the harm the bill causes, making noises about respecting the will of Quebec voters. I think this is called wanting to have your electoral cake and eat it too.

It’s hard being an adult, I get it. We’re always afraid of losing something – a job, status, control over a provincial or federal legislature. Let’s return to Alisha for a moment, who speaks up despite the fact that it brings potentially frightening consequences for her, both online and in real life.

The first time she published an article about Islamophobia, she was shaking. Alisha has a good philosophy to mitigate her anxiety, which adults might want to think about: “The important thing is not to let your fear control your mind, have your mind control your fear. Our identity is worth it. It’s worth fighting for.”

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