Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie and the author of Laughing All the Way to the Mosque.
When I first learned that Irish immigrants were discriminated against, I was confused. Like meteors that come from outer space, don't all white people originate from Ireland? Aren't Irish, with their fair skin and blue eyes, the whitest of white people? What's not to like? It was later that someone explained that the Irish were Catholic and Catholics were suspected of infiltrating the government, being loyal to a foreign leader and wanting to impose creeping Catholicism unto unsuspecting Canadians.
Turns out the kind of white people Canada really wanted were from Britain – and were Protestant. Canada's founders had never envisioned a multicultural society. In fact, they opposed it for most of Canada's history. People like me were never supposed to be let in, much less writing in newspapers. If Sir John A. Macdonald could see Canada now, he'd be rolling in his grave. A Sikh man as the Defence Minister! The Komagata Maru was turned away for a reason.
For Macdonald and the rest of the British colonial founders, First Nations peoples were an inconvenient presence. Our first prime minister wanted to eradicate so-called "barbaric cultural practices," so he instituted the residential school system. If he couldn't bleach them, he could at least destroy First Nations culture and replace it with "white" values.
It seems strange to think about Canadian values of the past. My faith has also been deemed barbaric by a more recent Canadian prime minister. The ethnicities may change, but a lot of the racist rhetoric stays the same. While arguing with an alt-right protester at a rally a few weeks ago, I was told that Islam brings rapists and pedophiles to this country.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada noted in devastating detail that First Nations children were subjected to rape and pedophilia as a form of punishment at the hands of nuns and priests, who were not Muslim but Christian. In 1995, Justice D.A Hogarth described one residential school employee as a "sexual terrorist" while sentencing him to 11 years in jail. Sometimes the barbaric crimes committed by the "civilizing" community are often conveniently forgotten.
But the problem with racism in a country as big as Canada is that you eventually need someone to build the railroads, farm the land and take out the garbage. People were grudgingly let in, but not without facing discriminatory policies such as the Chinese head tax and Japanese internment camps. As a good friend of mine put it, racism is as Canadian as maple syrup.
Today we have parents freaking out because Muslim teenagers want to pray in schools. If anyone can get a teenager to put their smartphones away for five minutes to commune with God, good luck to you. Praying is a dying art. Ask white people, even the Irish ones. One local is offering $1,000 to students to videotape hate speech at a Muslim prayer service. But why stop there? Any group that promotes hate should face the same scrutiny.
As my friend Sheema Khan said at the Woodrow Lloyd Lecture at the University of Regina last week, fighting racism means recognizing "alternative facts" that are spread about Muslims by anti-Muslim bigots. We're actually not clamouring for sharia, at least not the kind white people worry about. We like the sharia that gets us boneless, skinless chicken thighs at Wal-Mart and interest-free loans at the bank. If we were going to dig holes and stone adulterers, Donald Trump's former wife Ivana Trump would have been the first person to convert years ago.
And speaking of the U.S. President, he didn't create the racists. He just emboldened them to speak out and act out. And we know that hate speech has a clear link to hate crimes, which have spiked against Muslims since he was elected. It isn't a stretch to think his rhetoric may have resulted in the mass murder of Muslims in Quebec City. That scares me. Whenever I try to talk to my kids about my feelings, they just record me on Snapchat, use the filters that transform me into a high-pitched, squeaky, hysterical rodent with bug eyes and floppy ears, and send the video to all their friends as an example of their nutty mother who worries too much.
So this is what I say to myself every day. We've been down this path before. Most people at their core are inherently good. We fear what we don't know and the only way to defeat racism is to get to know each other, whether through our neighbours, colleagues, teachers, students, books, plays or television shows. A hundred years ago, no one would have believed that two men of Irish heritage, Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan, once part of a despised minority, would be leading their respective countries. Racism is part of human nature, and will always be with us – just ask black people in the United States – but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to rise above it.