Xenophobia, Racism, Islamophobia: How is Canada doing?

In 2007 the debate held in Quebec about reasonable accommodation has polarized the opinions in the society. Requests of certain religious groups were amplified by the media and exploited by political parties. All swirled rapidly down to a dangerous spiral where the presence of religion in the public arena, other than the Catholic religion, has become a source of discomfort for many.

After the Taylor-Bouchard commission, things relatively quieted down for few years and then took another steep turn in 2013 when the “parti québecois” has built his entire political platform practically on banning certain religious symbols in public. But no one was fooled (except for few of course), the “charter of values” that was supposed to uphold “la laïcté” in Quebec became the perfect pretext to ban Muslim women wearing their headscarves or niqab in the workplace.

The rest of Canada didn’t not necessarily feel concerned by what was happening in Quebec, sometimes portraying themselves as above this “racist discourse” or evoking the two solitudes, but not for long. Indeed last summer, during the federal election campaign, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted to play dangerous xenophobia play. He introduced a law on zero tolerance to barbaric cultural practices. He wanted to change the procedures in place and thus prohibiting Muslim women who wear the niqab to attend the citizenship ceremony while wearing the niqab. He continued to appeal to successive judgments by various courts that ruled in favour of Omar Khadr. He announced the creation of a 1-800 line to report “barbaric cultural” practices. His government only accepted to take 1300 Syrian refugees over a period of 2 years. In short, one could say that he acted as a “mini” Donald Trump.

At the end, Stephen Harper has failed in his attempts to divide and conquer. But unfortunately Canada woke up slowly today from a long nightmare that has become a reality. For years Canada has surfed on the waves of its former reputation gained from the Lester B. Pearson legacy as a country that participates in missions to restore peace. To the opposite, Stephen Harper has done everything since coming to power until he left to show the world that Canada is a belligerent power. We went to war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq and Syria in combat missions to kill. We have even positioned ourselves strongly against Russia in the Ukrainian conflict to the contrary of the Americans.

For years we surfed on our reputation that we are a welcoming nation that embrace refugees with open arms and yet today we have a discourse that would discourage politicians to accept more refugees for fear of terrorism. Certainly we are not Europe with its heavy colonial past and its strained relations with its Muslim and North African communities for instance. However, it’s so easy to become like them if we do nothing. If we do not invest in education, in public transit and in job opportunities for all.

Recently, Canada accepted 25,000 new people coming from Syria. This should be seen as an asset, a wealth to the nation and not a burden. However, this could quickly become a burden if these people and their children are left to themselves, if schools are not provided with appropriate educational resources, if professional training programs are not adequate to prepare them for work and if urban planning of our cities is not creative by allowing previous residents and new residents to see each other and meet and if we don’t invest in small and medium enterprises to encourage the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. All these programs need to be studied and seriously considered if we really want to prevent xenophobia, islamophobia and racism to become the rule rather than the exception.

Today xenophobia, racism and islamophobia are not just some isolated unfortunate incidents. It is not only a burned mosque in Peterborough or a veiled woman to whom we take away by force her headscarf in a street in Montreal or Vancouver. It’s more than that. Xenophobia and islamophobia and racism are ideologies. An industry that makes profits, political parties that win votes and consumers who consume it and ask for more. We cannot combat them by some simple pamphlets or some few nice words of welcome. We must fight them with educational and social programs well thought and designed, with new urban planning and above all with an open, intelligent and concerted vision aimed for the long term.

These are my notes for a panel at the Summit of the Broadbent Institute on April 1, 2016.

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