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Islamophobia exists in Canada – we must recognize it

Hassan Yussuff is president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

The horrific killing of six Quebec Muslim men during evening prayers at their local mosque in Quebec City deeply shook Canadians across the country. In the days and weeks that followed the tragedy, thousands of people attended vigils, sent messages of goodwill and surrounded mosques in circles of peace to show solidarity with Canada's Muslim communities.

As we approach the first anniversary of this terrorist attack – the first of its kind on a place of worship on Canadian soil – it's time the federal government designates Jan. 29 as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia so that we take the opportunity to educate fellow Canadians about this poison in our midst. This form of racism harms all of us, not only Muslims, or those frequently mistaken for being Muslims, including Sikhs and Hindus. Canada's unions are proud to join the National Council of Canadian Muslims' call to recognize this day, along with more than 100 community groups and individuals representing our country's ethnocultural and religious diversity.

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The emotional outpouring many expressed immediately in the aftermath of the massacre demonstrated widespread compassion and did not come as a surprise. However, compassion is not always enough; we must collectively address the underlying issues that lead to such horrific acts in the first place. "Some of these events that are in the news are causing us to confront deep, painful, important issues," noted Elana Newman, a professor of psychology at Oklahama's University of Tulsa, in an interview about how people generally react to heartbreaking news events. She's absolutely right.

Islamophobia is on the rise, as evident in poll after poll that shows a significant swath of Canadians holding unfavourable views of Muslims – including an Angus Reid survey released last fall that showed close to half of Canadians perceive the presence of Muslims as "damaging" to Canada. This is troubling, not least because a similar survey taken a few weeks after the mosque attack showed attitudes towards Muslims had softened (particularly, and most remarkably, in Quebec). People quickly forget, especially as news of attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam continue to occur in North America and around the world. We know the vast majority of Muslims condemn this violence, yet these acts are inevitably linked to their communities.

This is why it's necessary to remember the Quebec massacre as a shared national tragedy: so that we recall the children who were left fatherless, the wives widowed and another man left paralyzed because of the hatred that consumed the alleged perpetrator. This is similar to the effort undertaken long ago to commemorate Dec. 6 as a national day to honour the 14 women killed at the École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1989. Like the victims in Quebec City, those women were targeted because of who they were. And now, every year, that anniversary is marked as an opportunity to remember the victims and reflect on how far we've come in the fight for gender equality – and how much further we still need to go.

Along with gender inequality, racial and religious discrimination are part of the everyday experiences of far too many Canadians and newly arrived immigrants and refugees. All too frequently, these behaviours are playing out in our workplaces. The Ontario Human Rights Commission released a new survey on human rights in mid-December that found 45 per cent of respondents had experienced discrimination or harassment at work in the past five years.

It is noteworthy that right before the holidays, Scott Reid, Conservative MP for Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston in Ontario, asked the House of Commons to support his motion to declare Jan. 29 as Canada's national day of solidarity with victims of anti-religious bigotry and violence. The Conservative Party actively and vociferously opposed the use of the term "Islamophobia" as a way to describe anti-Muslim animus, opposing Motion 103, which called for the study of the phenomenon, along with racism and religious discrimination. This latest effort to co-opt the discussion shows just how deeply entrenched anti-Muslim sentiment is.

We won't ever get ahead of all the various forms of discrimination that communities experience if we aren't ready to name them specifically. That includes respecting the way those most deeply impacted choose to describe their victimization. This is part of the lesson we all need to share every Jan. 29.

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