“Too broken to write,” I told my editor, after the onslaught of Conservative announcements. The niqab was condemned. Citizenship was revoked for convicted terrorists with dual citizenship. Canadians were reminded of “barbaric cultural practices,” and the federal government’s preference for mainly non-Muslim Syrian refugees was reiterated. Make no mistake: This divisive strategy is meant to prey upon fear and prejudice.
Last May, I wrote that Canadian Muslims “are the low-hanging fruit in the politics of fear. Omar Khadr is exhibit A; Zunera Ishaq is exhibit B. With an October election, it won’t be surprising to see political machinations at our expense.” Yet the sheer brazenness of the Conservatives leaves one speechless; a 2.0 version of Quebec’s “charter of values” is being used to win votes on the backs of a vulnerable minority. The government’s open hostility has given licence to bigots to vent xenophobia. A pregnant Muslim woman is assaulted in Montreal. A niqab-wearing woman is attacked while shopping with her daughters in Toronto. Mosques are taking precautions. Identifiable Muslim women feel a little less safe, and Muslim youth face difficult questions about identity and acceptance.
Don’t expect Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to call for calm; this cynical strategy seems to be working. What does this say about us, and our commitment to a just society?
December will mark 50 years since I arrived from India as a toddler. In Montreal, I experienced the fear of terrorism during the 1970 FLQ crisis and horror after the massacre of 14 women one dark December evening in 1989. My first voting experience was momentous, for I helped to keep the country together in the 1980 Quebec referendum. I did the same during the nail-biter of 1995. Along the way, I never felt any discrimination, any sense of being second-class.
Quebec and Canada allowed me to thrive. I remember the pride I felt when my Harvard University professors told me that Canadian graduate students were the best-prepared – a testament to our excellent undergraduate institutions. And the love I felt for my compatriots during the massive 1995 pro-Canada rally in Montreal. It reminded me of the hajj – a sea of individuals from near and far, united in their love for a noble ideal. Differences melted into a shared vision of the future.
However, the mood changed in Quebec after then-premier Jacques Parizeau’s “money and ethnic votes” comment the night of the 1995 referendum. For the first time, I was told to “go back home,” while walking my eight-month-old daughter in a stroller. When I moved to Ottawa, a man, proudly brandishing his Canadian Legion jacket, told me the same. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although there were a few more incidents, I never feared for myself or my children. On the contrary – friends, neighbours and complete strangers renewed my faith in the basic decency of Canadians.
Now, things feel different. I never imagined that the federal government would use its hefty weight to vilify Muslims. Never in 50 years have I felt so vulnerable. For the first time, I wonder if my children will have the opportunity to thrive as I did. One is a budding environmental scientist; one has entrepreneurial goals; the youngest dreams of playing soccer alongside Kadeisha Buchanan. But the Conservative message is: You are Muslim, you are the “other,” you can’t be trusted and you will never belong.
Thankfully, other political leaders have stepped up; Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair, Elizabeth May, the Quebec legislature, among others, have denounced the politics of fear, and reiterated the Canadian value of inclusion. We need more people to stand together against all forms of bigotry, whether it’s against Muslims today, or aboriginals every day.
By all means, let’s respectfully discuss our differences, while weaving a tapestry of shared experiences toward a more inclusive country. Our hearts, like the land, are wide enough to mend broken spirits. As the late NDP leader Jack Layton reminded us so eloquently: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
An earlier digital version of this story had an incorrect quote attributed to Jacques Parizeau. This digital version has been corrected.
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