The rise of a politics of hate in Canada

Last week, Statistics Canada released very troubling numbers on hate crimes in Canada. In 2017, 2,073 incidents of hate crimes were reported, the highest number recorded since 2009 when Stats Canada started collecting this data. That is an increase of 47 per cent compared to numbers reported in the previous year. The incidents targeted three main groups: Jewish, Muslim and Black populations, with Muslims suffering the most violent incidents, and with Quebec and Ontario the two provinces registering most of the increases. To my knowledge, neither Quebec’s new premier, François Legault, nor Ontario premier Doug Ford felt compelled to comment on these scary increases, hence sending a message that they were unconcerned by them.

However, both of these politicians and their supporters have on several occasions spoken about and taken explicit actions that made them, in my opinion, responsible for creating a toxic environment leading to the normalization of hate.

When he was a member of Quebec’s opposition, François Legault surfed the wave of Islamophobia that swept through Quebec politics with the advent of the charter of values in 2013. In 2015, he even went on to declare that all mosques in Quebec should be investigated before opening.

Last summer, Legault spent his political campaign insinuating that immigrants are the root problem of Quebec society. Those comments coincided with TV images of African and Haitian families crossing the Canadian border from the U.S. and applying for refugee status — creating the false impression that the Black population is foreign to Quebec and that the province is about to be invaded by “foreign Black refugees.” The reality is, of course, totally different and more complex. The Black population represents only four per cent of Quebec’s general population, with a deep and long history in the province.

The day after his election as premier, Legault insisted on fulfilling his discriminatory promise of introducing a bill to ban public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at their workplace. These symbols include: the veil for women, the kippa for Jewish men and the kirpan for Sikhs. As for the crucifix, he proudly declared that it isn’t a religious symbol, even if it represents Christian values.

This ridiculous assertion was left almost unchallenged while Premier Legault and his government continued to openly target the presence of Muslim women in teaching positions, despite the fact that teaching isn’t the same “position of power” as compared to police officers or prison guards or judges.

The obsession in politics with certain religious symbols and the demonization of some racialized groups more than others creates the politics of hate. It doesn’t take politicians committing hate crimes or even inciting others to do it; all it requires is creating a climate of impunity that ineluctably leads to the normalization and banalization of hate.

A similar pattern was observed in Ontario. While still a Toronto city councillor, Doug Ford used the word “jihad” on two occasions to attack journalists who criticized him. The use of such a politically charged word was meant to target Islam and Muslims. While on his campaign trail last spring, Doug Ford surrounded himself with candidates who were not embarrassed to adopt and declare Islamophobic opinions.

For instance, he defended his choice of Andrew Lawton, a former private radio talk show host who made Islamophobic comments and jokes while campaigning in London, Ontario. Ford also kept Tanya Granic Allen as a PC party candidate for weeks after it emerged that she made Islamophobic and homophobic comments. He never denounced her comments, just as he never apologized for taking a photo with Faith Goldy, a white supremacist who ran in Toronto’s mayoral election. Goldy’s racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic history is well documented and public knowledge, yet Ford didn’t denounce her until after a huge public outcry, when he made a speech condemning anti-Semitism and hate. But it was too little, too late. The underlying message had already passed: since the premier is “soft” on hate, hateful persons or groups can continue their horrible work with total impunity.

Given such acts contributing to the increase of hate, it’s no wonder both Premiers Legault and Ford kept silent in the face of skyrocketing numbers of hate incidents. What is even more troubling is the silence of the majority public, which in part has worsened the situation by voting for these dangerous populist governments and cheering their simplistic and irresponsible promises like “buck a beer” by Ford or “reducing the number of immigrants by 10,000 people” by Legault.

Perhaps it is time for the federal government to step into this dangerous arena and take leadership in fighting hate crimes targeting Muslim, Jewish, and Black communities, and other groups. It is not only a matter of continuing to apologize for past errors made by Canada — it should also be about preventing future mistakes that are primed to happen in light of the normalization of hate.

This column was initially published at


Mohamed Harkat should never be deported to torture

I first heard about the case of Mohamed Harkat in December 2002. It was a dark time for me and my family. My husband, Maher Arar, was detained in Syria; I had become a single mother with two young children, living on social assistance. The whole world was swept with anti-terrorism policies: if you were an Arab Muslim man, you would be at high risk of racial profiling, interrogation and eventually deportation to torture.

I learned about the case of Mohamed Harkat when I saw his wife, Sophie Harkat, on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, making an emotional plea for the release of her husband. I immediately felt a sense of sympathy for her. I felt we were fighting a similar battle. We were two women caught in the legal aftermath of 9/11, trying to bring justice to their loved ones, but surrounded by a wave of suspicion and a climate of fear.

Mohamed Harkat was arrested in front of his home in Ottawa under a security certificate. At the time, very few Canadians would have known about the controversial procedure that allows two cabinet ministers to sign a certificate ordering the deportation of a refugee or permanent resident out of Canada. This measure existed before the events of 9/11 and before the new national security legislation that followed. Nevertheless after 9/11, it became the tool par excellence to order the deportation of those deemed “dangerous” terrorists or sleeper agents. The security certificate is supposed to offer ministers a speedy way to order the deportation of an alleged terrorist. However, since 2002, these measures have been proven — through several court decisions and long public campaigns — problematic at many levels.

Mohamed Harkat’s case proved that as well. After his arrest, he was detained for a year in solitary confinement, then transferred to “Guantanamo North,” the Millhaven prison built at the exorbitant cost of $3.2 million specifically to house Arab Muslim men detained under security certificates. When Harkat was released from prison, he was put under house arrest with conditions considered to be the strictest in Canadian history. As Sophie Harkat mentioned in public speaking appearances, during this time she became her own husband’s de facto jailer, responsible for making sure he didn’t use the internet or drive outside the designated perimeter without the knowledge of Canada Border Services agents.

After 16 long years fighting his security certificate, today Mohamed Harkat is still threatened with deportation to his native Algeria. The secret evidence that led to his arrest has been destroyed by Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the informants used in this case were never cross-examined, and we learned through court proceedings that some of that “evidence” was collected through a suspect named Abu Zubeydah, who is still detained in Guantanamo Bay and who was waterboarded 83 times and subjected to torture such as sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and confinement in small dark boxes.

Mohamed Harkat escaped Algeria in 1990, at the start of the civil war that ravaged his country of birth for over a decade. He left to live in Pakistan and later came to Canada as a refugee claimant fearing for his life if he returned to Algeria. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment and treatment in Canada make him a perfect candidate for immediate arrest and detention in Algeria if deported there by the Canadian government.

According to Amnesty International, Algerian authorities “took no steps to open investigations and counter the impunity for grave human rights abuses and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of torture committed by security forces and armed groups in the 1990s during Algeria’s internal conflict, which left an estimated 200,000 people killed or forcibly disappeared.”

So why does the Canadian government want to send Mohamed Harkat back to Algeria? Do they want to turn him into another “disappeared” man?

After the Supreme Court of Canada deemed security certificates unconstitutional in 2007, Canada’s new security certificate legislation was modelled on the British system. Two years ago, the British government was barred from deporting six Algerian men suspected of having links with Al-Qaida to Algeria over concerns of torture.

Despite what British government lawyers qualified as “agreements with Algeria against torture,” the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that “potential future political instability in the country could undermine the assurances’ longevity.”

Why is Canada following the British model for security certificates yet turning a blind eye to decisions coming from that country — decisions that would help keep Mohamed Harkat in Canada, away from torture?

Prime Minister Trudeau and his government are under a lot of pressure from the Conservatives, who are trying to paint them as soft on terrorism. This is not new. The Conservative government has taken a hard line on terrorism — and anyone suspected of having links to it — in the past. They did it when they passed sweeping anti-terrorism legislation in 2015, they did it when they refused to repatriate Omar Khadr from Guantanamo, and they do it today on the issue of the return of Canadians who travelled overseas to fight in Syria. History has proven them wrong. Prime Minister Trudeau shouldn’t bow to this political pressure. Mohamed Harkat has suffered enough. His place is in Canada. He should never be deported to torture.

This column was initially published at

How anti-immigrant rhetoric shaped the Quebec election

It was a strange election in Quebec. I followed it from afar but with a lot of interest and a certain dose of skepticism. Since arriving in Canada and living in Montreal in the early 1990s, I found that during provincial and even federal elections, the question of Quebec independence occupied a big portion of the political debate. Usually Quebec independence came as a final threat launched by the “federalist” Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) to dissuade the last batch of hesitant voters from siding with the “sovereigntist” Parti Québécois (PQ). And this polarization worked relatively well, at least to a certain extent, for the PLQ. But over the last two decades, the referendum on Quebec independence has been losing ground, especially among younger voters, but even baby boomers, usually supporters of the idea, have been showing signs of tiredness.

Over the years, the focus of polarization in Quebec politics has shifted from independence to identity. It was Mario Dumont, forefather of today’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), who was instrumental in bringing the inflated “reasonable accommodation” debate to Quebec political affairs. Political fear-mongering stopped targeting federalist Anglos, who supposedly threatened French culture with their imperialistic language, songs, movies and powerful economic institutions. Instead, it was directed — skilfully, with media complicity — at a new threat: immigrants.

CAQ leader François Legault and his team ran much of their election campaign on the backs of immigrants. They spoke on their behalf — only about 12 per cent of their candidates are from racialized groups, a similar percentage to the other parties — and they demonized them. They created a dangerous rhetoric and repeated it until they won the election on October 1, 2018.

Throughout their campaign, the CAQ insinuated that there are “good immigrants” — the ones who arrive from certain regions of the world, look like Québécois de souche in skin and hair colour, don’t speak barbaric languages, don’t cook with garlic and smelly spices, and accept the jobs that are left over. They have some children — one or two, just enough to keep the jobs in the family — and don’t leave the province of Quebec, as a sign of loyalty. Those are the jackpot of immigrants, the ones Mr. Legault and his supporters want.

But there are also “bad immigrants,” the ones no one likes. They are loud. They have many children, who don’t behave themselves and end up being shot by the police. They complain a lot, they live in ghettos, they don’t want to integrate, and most of all, they wouldn’t hesitate to leave the province after benefitting from its social programs. Even worse, they have barbaric cultural practices, they oppress their women, and they want to change the culture of the majority with their backwards habits.

Clearly, this is the kind of immigrant Mr. Legault and his supporters were thinking and speaking of during the election when they promised to reduce the annual number of immigrants coming to Quebec from 50,000 to 40,000.

Otherwise, how can we explain the fact that on the day after his election, Mr. Legault — instead of acting as premier to all Quebecers — continued with the dangerous, divisive rhetoric of “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants.”

He didn’t shy away from invoking the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose a prohibition against public employees wearing religious symbols such as as hijabs or kippas in the workplace.

I wish he was a little more honest and clearly stated that by religious symbols, he meant only “hijabs.”

Because, let’s be clear, the PQ’s target, when they first presented their “Charter of Values” in 2013, was women wearing headscarves and niqabs, even though they claimed that they were ready to ban all religious symbols. There was a tacit public understanding that the main targets were Muslim women. When the PLQ won the election in 2014, the Charter of Values was buried but the PLQ produced another legal chef d’oeuvre by introducing Bill 62, which ended up targeting another tiny group: women wearing niqabs. Even though no one in Quebec was capable of answering the very simple question of how many women were wearing the niqab in Quebec, the bill passed and became a law that is currently being challenged by a niqab-wearing Quebecer.

But what Mr. Legault and his team are not getting is that many “good immigrants” are choosing to leave Quebec. Indeed, according to University Laval political science professor Thierry Giasson, 25 to 40 per cent of French immigrants to Quebec decide to leave the province.

And on the other hand, many “bad immigrants” are fighting for their right to stay in Quebec and feel safe in their jobs, offering a great lesson on civic engagement to the new premier and his team.

These nuances show the dangers of polarization and the instrumentalization of “immigrants” in gaining votes. But one thing is for sure. Even if Mr. Legault and his team were able to exploit fear, ignorance and racism to get power in this election, they won’t have an easy time implementing their proposed agenda. This time, they found in immigrants an “alibi” to win. Next time, real problems like climate change, health care and education will catch them.

This article was published on

Une place dans le cercle

Le mois de décembre passé je suis allée visiter Tunis, ma ville natale. Depuis quelques années, j’y vais tous les deux ans. C’est peut-être la vieillesse qui pointe à l’horizon et qui me rend nostalgique. Nostalgique des odeurs de mon enfance, des couleurs du ciel de l’été à la tombée du soir, après les journées de chaleur torride que je passais dans ma chambre en train de lire, presque collée au mur à la recherche, en vain, de fraicheur. Nostalgique aussi des amitiés que le passage du temps a graduellement effritées pour presque effacer. À chaque visite je regarde les photos que j’ai conservées. Comme si j’allais découvrir quelque chose de nouveau. Et pourtant je les connaissais par cœur. Les photos d’anniversaire où chaque enfant arbore un sourire, prend une pose particulière pour se distinguer. Celles de mariages, avec les robes blanches et longues, les cheveux coiffés pour l’occasion, le regard blasé, des ballons flétris qui trainent par terre. Mais la photo dont je me souviens le plus c’est celle que ma mère a prise à la veille des vacances d’été dans la cour de mon école primaire.

Me voilà avec trois autres filles. Quatre fillettes qui se ressemblent. Non pas physiquement, mais par leurs traits réguliers, les cheveux coupés à la garçonne ou tirés à l’arrière, des petites robes bien propres. Nous dégagions l’odeur de la classe moyenne, nous en exhumions le parfum caractéristique avec un sourire poli et un regard innocent. Les mêmes couleurs, les mêmes rêves, tous peints du même pinceau. C’est justement cette photo qui me revient à l’esprit quand je suis amenée à parler du Canada. Des petites filles de six ans dans une cour d’école et qui s’arrêtent le temps d’une photo.

Je suis arrivée à Montréal pour la première fois au mois de mars 1991. Ce fut pour moi une sorte de voyage initiatique de Tunis à Montréal après une escale de quelques heures à Amsterdam. Traverser l’Atlantique par les cieux. Tout est à la fois grand et petit. Le vaste ciel, les nuages à perte de vue et les terres qui paraissent comme des formes géométriques tirées d’un manuel scolaire. Montréal vue du ciel paraît si bien ordonné, des blocs d’immeubles, quadrillés è à l’horizontale et à la verticale par des rues et des boulevards. Rien à voir avec les cercles concentriques et les labyrinthes que j’aperçois de mon hublot en atterrissant à Tunis. L’ordre et la symétrie sont beaux à voir. Mais ça me faisait peur aussi. Quand on a grandi dans le chaos, on ne peut qu’être fasciné par l’ordre. Mais au bout de la fascination, il y a la peur. La peur de ce que cet ordre peut nous cacher.

C’était ma première rencontre avec des gens qui ne me ressemblent pas. Bien sûr qu’il y avait les livres et la télévisions. J’ai grandi avec les deux. Ils étaient mes guides du monde extérieur. Comprendre les autres. Comprendre ceux qui ne parlaient pas la même langue que moi et ceux qui ne me ressemblaient pas. Mais ce n’était pas suffisant. Rien ne peut remplacer le contact humain, le témoignage des yeux. Voir les rues de Montréal pour la première fois, c’est un peu comme traverser la manche à la nage. Les voitures qui arrivent par vagues successives, les feux de circulation qui commencent déjà à clignoter à peine qu’on a commencé à traverser la rue. Le plus souvent, je finissais presque en courant de peur d’être happée par la prochaine vague. Pas de marchands ambulants qui déballent leurs bric-à-brac, pas de policiers qui les guettent au bout de la rue pour leur faire un contrôle d’identité, et peut-être alors leur confisquer leur pacotille en fourrant le tout dans l’arrière d’un camion.

Quand je marchais dans les rues de Montréal, je passais inaperçue. Une étrangère parmi tant d’autres. En 1991, je faisais partie de ce 16% des Canadiens qui sont nés à l’étranger, aujourd’hui, il y en a encore plus et de toutes les couleurs : plus de 20%. C’est surtout ce mélange de cultures qui décrierait ma nouvelle vie au Canada.

En Tunisie, pendant les vingt ans que j’y ai vécu, j’ai rarement rencontré des personnes d’une autre culture ou d’une autre religion, à part bien sûr les touristes qui remplissaient les souks et à qui les « locaux » vantaient les attraits de leurs marchandises : un tapis pure laine, un plat décoratif en cuivre, une lanterne scintillante. Ces touristes étaient pour moi d’une classe à part. Un peu comme des objets exposés dans une musée. On regarde mais on ne touche pas.

Mais au Canada, les gens qu’on prendrait pour des touristes à Tunis, c’étaient mes concitoyens. J’allais à l’université avec eux. Je m’asseyais à leur côté, ils étaient caissiers au supermarché et certains étaient même mes professeurs. En Tunisie, les gens pensaient un peu qu’ils étaient le centre du monde, qu’ils avaient la meilleure nourriture au monde, bien avant de l’avènement de la diète méditerranéenne; qu’ils avaient les meilleures plages au monde même si celles-ci étaient remplies de baigneurs et de pelures de pastèques et, bien sûr, la meilleure équipe de foot au monde sans avoir une fois gagnée la coupe du monde. C’est un peu ce sentiment un peu villageois et provincial, qui fait que les gens s’aiment et se détestent à la fois et ne voient pas plus loin que le bout de leur nez, sinon de leurs frontières. J’ai grandi là-dedans. Avec des blagues sur les voisins libyens et algériens, un sentiment de supériorité éphémère pour oublier l’oppression.

J’ai rencontré une personne d’origine libyenne pour la première fois à Montréal. Tout d’abord, les mauvaises blagues me sont remontées à l’esprit mais tout de suite après je me suis rendu compte de la bêtise et la petitesse dans laquelle je me suis confinée pendant toutes ces années.
Car cette personne était l’amie d’une amie. Elle parlait français, elle entamait une maitrise en biologie et venait détruire en quelques minutes tous les stéréotypes que j’avais accumulés dans ma tête pendant des années.

Le quartier dans lequel j’ai vécu à Montréal, s’appelle Côte-des-Neiges. C’est l’un des quartiers les plus multiethnique du Québec sinon du Canada. Mais il n’y a pas d’ethnie ou de culture qui l’emporte sur une autre. Ce n’est pas non plus un ghetto où des gens s’entassent dans la misère ou la pauvreté. C’est un quartier dynamique, rempli de couleurs et de saveurs, dans lequel j’avais facilement accès au transport en commun et à l’université. J’allais à pied à l’École des Hautes Études Commerciales où je poursuivais mes études. Je pouvais aussi faire mes courses dans la multitude de commerces qui bordaient la rue principale qui porte le même nom que le quartier. Librairies, pâtisseries, marchands de fruit et de légumes, se côtoyaient en offrant des produits provenant du monde entier.

A chaque fois, que je passais par l’école du quartier, j’avais l’impression de passer par une mini-délégation onusienne. Rien à voir avec la photo avec mes amies dans ma cour d’école.
Les mêmes couleurs et les mêmes visages. Et pourtant la même ambiance bon enfant y régnait : les cris des enfants qui jouaient, les enseignants qui surveillaient de loin et les passants qui regardaient en souriant.

Même quand j’ai déménagé quelques années plus tard pour m’installer avec ma famille à Ottawa, la capitale du Canada, j’ai vécu une expérience tout à fait semblable. Le quartier Bayshore n’était pas aussi urbain que Côte-des-Neiges, mais tout aussi multiethnique. C’est un peu la banlieue où des personnes de différentes origines habitaient dans un même complexe résidentiel.

A l’époque, j’amenais tous les après-midis ma fille d’un an jouer au parc. C’est là où je voyais réellement la mosaïque du quartier : les petits canadiens de souche dans le carré de sable en train de jouer avec les petits chinois, que les grands-parents surveillaient du coin de l’œil tout en continuant leur conversation animée en mandarin. Il y avait aussi les garçons sikhs dont on essayait de faire pousser les cheveux enroulés en chignon dans un petit foulard de couleur vive. Les grands- parents jouent un rôle important dans ses communautés qui sont arrivés au Canada par vagues successives au grès des guerres qui se passaient ailleurs, des situations géopolitiques de certaines régions et des crises économiques.

Règle générale, les hommes arrivaient en premier, suivis par leurs épouses, puis les grands-parents, grâce au programme de réunification familiale. Ces grands-parents étaient un peu le point d’attache de ces communautés dans ce nouveau pays qui deviendraient ultérieurement les meilleurs « baby-sitters » de la famille.

Quand ma fille avait quatre ans, elle est entrée à l’école du quartier. C’est alors que j’ai pu voir de près cette diversité culturelle. J’allais une fois par semaine lire des livres aux enfants. Les enfants arrivaient avec des bagages différents. Ceux qui ont fui la guerre comme les somaliens et ceux qui ont été expulsés d’un pays qu’ils ont fait le leur mais qui les trouvait tout d’un coup encombrants, comme les palestiniens qui vivaient au Kuwait chassés du jour au lendemain. Il y avait ceux qui ont pu transférer leur fortune d’un compte bancaire à un autre mais aussi ceux qui malheureusement n’ont eu le temps de rien prendre, même pas une photo d’enfance. Je lisais des histoires à ces enfants qui, dépendamment de leur niveau de scolarisation, m’écoutaient les yeux avides et les oreilles remplies de cette nouvelle langue qui s’ajoutait à leur monde. Je ne comprendrais jamais leur monde. Quand j’avais leur âge, mon monde était simple, monochrome et dans un sens, prévisible. Le leur était tout autre. Un déracinement parfois involontaire, de nouveaux visages, et surtout de nouveaux rêves, multicolores.

Mais le Canada n’a pas toujours été celui que je décris, un endroit un peu idyllique où plusieurs cultures cohabiteraient dans une ambiance douce et sereine. C’est le défunt père de l’actuel Premier Ministre, Justin Trudeau, qui a introduit cette politique qui s’appelait multiculturalisme. Aujourd’hui, il y a certains qui ne jurent que par cela alors que d’autres n’y voit qu’un spectre qui va déchirer les valeurs traditionnelles européennes et chrétiennes qui ont bâti le Canada depuis sa création en 1867, et même défavoriser le Québec dans sa quête d’une identité nationale distincte.

Et même si cette politique a été mise en place en 1982 et inscrite dans la Charte Canadienne des droits et libertés, elle n’a pas été établie pour des raisons purement innocentes d’amour et de compassion. Si Pierre Elliot Trudeau possédait bien un atout, je dirais qu’il était fin politicien et excellent visionnaire. En fait, il a vite compris que le Canada ne pouvait pas perdurer politiquement si on n’y introduisait pas une politique de diversité culturelle qui garderait les communautés culturelles satisfaites et maintiendrait en quelque sorte la paix « sociale ».

En effet, ce n’est pas un secret que le Canada n’est pas seulement le fait de la colonisation française puis anglaise. Il a été construit par des communautés culturelles différentes issues de l’immigration. Les traces italiennes sont encore visibles dans certains quartiers de Montréal avec les maisons en duplex ou triplex où les propriétaires vont habiter l’appartement du sous-sol et louer le premier et deuxième étage, souvent à de nouveaux immigrants, pour rembourser un prêt hypothécaire. Toronto, une autre ville où les différentes cultures se sont succédé est aussi encore un vestige urbain de ces vagues migratoires : juifs, italiens, grecs, portugais, et polonais, tous y sont passés et tous y ont laissés leur empreinte. Le quartier chinois de cette ville constitue aujourd’hui une attraction touristique pour certains visiteurs avec ses restaurants où les nourritures coréenne, vietnamienne et japonaises se côtoient.

Mais le multiculturalisme n’est pas seulement une succession de mets gastronomiques ou des boutiques de saris indiens ou de marchands de fruits exotiques.

Entre 1885 et 1923, une taxe d’entrée à l’immigration fut imposée aux immigrants chinois, ceux qui ont construit le chemin de fer canadien qui relie l’Océan Atlantique au Pacifique. Ces hommes ont injustement payé pendant des années des sommes importantes pour pouvoir venir s’établir au Canada et pour ramener leurs épouses et fonder une famille. Ce n’est qu’en 2006 que le gouvernement canadien s’est excusé auprès de la communauté chinoise pour le tort qu’il leur a causé.

En 1914, le bateau Komagata Maru est venu accoster sur les côtes canadiennes. A son bord, 376 passagers d’origine indienne, tous venus chercher une vie meilleure au Canada. Mais le bateau a dû rebrousser chemin parce le Canada leur a refusé accès.

Il n’y a pas si longtemps, en 2010, un cargo, le « MV Sun Sea », qui transportait 492 réfugiés tamouls du Sri Lanka fuyant la guerre civile et cherchant un sanctuaire au Canada, a été intercepté par la garde côtière canadienne. Pire, les agents des services frontaliers canadiens sont montés à bord et ont arrêté enfants, femmes et hommes. Certains ont été détenus pendant des mois dans des centres de détention. Vraisemblablement, le multiculturalisme avait des limites.

Toutefois, depuis que je suis établie au Canada, j’ai pu voir à maintes reprises, surtout lors des visites scolaires que j’entreprends lors de certains festivals littéraires, que c’est à l’école que tout se passe.

Lors d’une rencontre avec des lycéens de Vancouver, une ville de la côte ouest du Canada qui compte l’une des plus grosses communautés asiatiques, j’ai pu parler avec des jeunes canadiens qui pour la plupart avaient visiblement des origines asiatiques. Plusieurs d’entre eux rencontraient pour la première fois une écrivaine arabe d’origine nord-africaine. Et pourtant, une fois notre conversation entamée, j’ai vite compris que nous avions des histoires à partager. Pour la plupart le Canada est sans aucun doute le pays natal mais certains restaient attachés à l’histoire d’un grand-père pêcheur d’origine japonaise à qui on a confisqué le bateau de pêche lors de la seconde guerre mondiale ou celle d’un épicier chinois dont on se moquait bien souvent de l’accent. Et pourtant, ces jeunes ont grandi en se voyant parfaitement Canadiens. Ils parlent anglais, parfois même français, ils s’habillent à la mode du jour, mais restent toujours mus par le désir de connaitre leur histoire et surtout de raconter la leur. Ce qui n’est pas toujours facile. Le multiculturalisme n’est pas la carte d’accès magique qui les y conduit automatiquement. Il faut autre chose.

Il y a deux ans, avec la fin de la Commission de vérité et de réconciliation entre le Canada et les premières nations, on a pu assister à l’affranchissement de plusieurs voix autochtones. Ses voix sont importantes car le multiculturalisme n’est pas seulement une mosaïque destinée à « vendre » le Canada au reste du monde. Mais aussi faut-il rappeler que le Canada est le pays qui appartient à des peuples qui ont permis à des « Jacques Cartier » et à des « Samuel de Champlain » de survivre les longs hivers rigoureux en leur faisant découvrir ce vaste pays et en les invitant à leur cercle. Le cercle, symbole si important chez les premières nations comme un lieu où aucune hiérarchie n’existe mais juste des places les unes à côtés des autres avec une parole autour ou bien un silence…

Un grand cercle où de voix diverses se joignent pour chanter ou se taire et contempler le ciel limpide, le fleuve qui coule et le soleil qui brille. C’est justement vers une telle image que j’aimerais voir le Canada se diriger. Un cercle de cultures. Un cercle qui s’élargit et grandit avec le temps.

Je repense encore à cette photo de la petite fille que j’étais dans sa cour d’école. Tous les enfants se ressemblaient. Aucun visage différent, aucune surprise. Rien que la vie qui passe.
Au Canada j’ai découvert la possibilité de voir le monde autrement et de le vivre d’une autre manière. Intense, complexe et surprenante. Je ne pense pas que le multiculturalisme tel que vécu aujourd’hui est parfait. Mais je crois profondément qu’il pourra le devenir un jour. Il faut juste trouver notre voix et notre place dans le cercle.

Une version courte de cet article a été publié au Magazine français, l’Express, Juin, 2018

The othering of immigrants in Canada

This summer, I was a writer in residence in the Marpole community of Vancouver, B.C., at the Historic Joy Kogawa House. It is a privilege to be in a place that saw some of the childhood years of one of the most important literary figures in Canada, the poet and novelist of Japanese descent, Joy Kogawa. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, that same house saw its confiscation from the Kogawa family by the Canadian government. A similar fate awaited other houses, properties, boats and farms belonging to Japanese Canadians after the Pearl Harbour attack. Joy Kogawa and her family, along with 22,000 Canadian Japanese, were banned from living anywhere within 100 miles of the Pacific Coast and were forcibly sent to internment camps throughout B.C. and other parts of Canada. In the case of Joy Kogawa and her family, they were interned in the small town of Slocan, in the Kootenays.

That decision, which by today’s standards seems arbitrary and unfair, was actually perfectly “legal” — approved by Canada’s Parliament, the country’s main newspapers and a majority of Canadians. Not only was it approved, further steps were even taken to protect the “homogeneity of Canadians.” This extra zealous attitude manifested itself in fundraisers organized in the Marpole community, where a flag harbouring the Union Jack was used by neighbours as a fundraising tool in the war and post war efforts, as a symbol of the British homogeneity of the neighbourhood. These seemingly innocent popular and populist actions fed and reinforced the “othering” of Japanese Canadians.

One of the main arguments used at that time by the government was one that I, as a Muslim immigrant after 9/11, came to know very well. National security. Basically, Canadians who happened to share the same language, culture and physical features (and in most cases those were the only common factors) as the enemy from Japan at war against the allies, came to automatically represent a threat to the security of the rest of Canadians. Their loyalty was constantly questioned to the point that their physical presence became a source of concern for law enforcement, security intelligence, politicians and by extension, the Canadian public. Based solely on their origins or the origins of their parents, these Canadians were categorized as “enemy aliens” under the War Measures Act.

What I found worth noting in this sad story is that the horrible suspicion, later followed by the forced repatriation, internment and evacuation of Japanese Canadians, didn’t happen overnight or in the heat of the action during the Second World War. The “othering” of Japanese Canadians started as early as the late 19th century when the first Japanese fishermen started immigrating to B.C. A feeling of resentment was already very common, seen in accusations of these new immigrants “stealing jobs” from the rest of the population. And those feelings of fear, suspicion and resentment didn’t cease. They led to violent riots in 1907 and culminated in the internment, dispossession and uprooting of Japanese Canadians. When the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki on August 6, 1945, then prime minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.”

Many today would argue that he was a man of his time and that he was just expressing relief amid the horror of the war. I am not convinced.

What about today’s politicians who are once again raising the spectre of fear around immigrants and urging for actions to maintain “social harmony”? It reminds me terribly of sour stories from the past.

A recent survey released by Angus Reid showed that people in B.C. (and pretty much across Canada) are afraid of immigration. It showed that about half of the respondents (49 per cent) “think immigration levels should be decreased (compared to 36 per cent in 2014),” whereas about a third of them (31 per cent) “think levels should stay the same (compared to 48 per cent in 2014),” and only a mere six per cent “think levels should be increased (compared to nine per cent in 2014).”

Executive director of Angus Reid, Shachi Kurl, was very cautious in her interpretation of these numbers that I personally, as an immigrant, found very troubling. She said that “it’s hard to tell whether political discussion around immigration is driving public opinion, or vice versa,” basically making it into a chicken and egg dilemma.

It doesn’t matter who started it first: both are feeding into each other’s false rhetoric and the consequences are scary and real. The stories of Joy Kogawa’s family and other communities facing discrimination across Canada’s history are not over. Personally, I live in their shadow. For me, there is no doubt that fake news journalists as well as certain politicians are stirring this highly dangerous pot. On the other hand, what could be described as valid and legitimate socio-economic questions and concerns (for instance, unaffordable housing in Vancouver) raised by citizens are dangerously exploited by media and politicians. They portray the “Other” as the main culprit behind these complex questions and thus point to the “Others” as the evil force driving the vertiginous price increase of the housing market or stealing the jobs of Canadians.

No matter who started it first and no matter who is taking more advantage of this xenophobia, one thing is for sure — it won’t take us anywhere better. I am not trying to say that what happened to Japanese Canadians is a real possibility for other groups of immigrants in Canada today. Nevertheless it is clear to me that at least 49 per cent of Canadians haven’t learned from the story of Joy Kogawa and her family.

The “othering” of groups and communities, in this case immigrants, always starts somewhere but then moves quickly like a snowball and soon nobody is able to stop it. This is why people today may look back at sad historic events and ask themselves: “How did these horror stories happen?”

This article was initially published on

What misogyny looks like when you wear a hijab

Last week, I was on the bus travelling from Gatineau to Ottawa. I was taking that bus line for the first time and wasn’t familiar with the route and stops. Assuming that my stop was coming, I rang the bell, signalling my intention to get off. It turned out that I was wrong and that I was still far from my intended stop. The bus stopped anyway, and I didn’t get off.

A middle-aged man standing beside me asked, “why you didn’t get off?” Taking his question at face value, I replied, “it was a mistake.” To my surprise, he was quick to fire back: “Next time, don’t do it!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The bus driver didn’t say anything to me and here is this man, a simple rider, who feels entitled to talk to me in a patronizing tone to teach me how to behave on the bus. “Don’t talk to me like this,” I replied to him, fuming. “Shut up,” he ordered me angrily. “You shut up,” I replied back. “I am going to report you to the bus driver,” I continued.

In the midst of this heated interaction, a white lady stood up, got closer to me, and moving between me and the man, asked me, “is there anything I can do to help?” The whole dynamic changed. Until then, I was the “isolated” Muslim woman facing her white male bully, and now this white woman decided to break the “domination” relationship and turned it into an allyship. In matter of seconds, a Black woman joined the circle and said, lightly, “what is the problem here? I always make mistakes when requesting bus stops.” Another racialized man, who so far had been watching quietly, became encouraged and said to the white man, “why are you behaving this way?” The white man was isolated and started to retreat.

No longer on the offensive, he started saying he was “just wondering.” “No,” I corrected him, “you were simply mean.” He didn’t say a word. I was still shaken, but because of the solidarity I felt surrounded with, I decided to go to the bus driver and tell him about what happened. He was very cooperative. “If you want me to report him, I can do it immediately; I can even kick him off the bus.” I was not on a power trip. I was just trying to go home. I told the bus driver that this time I will let it go and then I got off. The white and Black ladies who stood by me both got off the bus; I thanked them for their actions and words, and each one of us went on her way.

This incident might look trivial, but shook me to the core, physically and morally. I thought I was much stronger than this but obviously I was not. I thought that words would come more easily to my rescue, but they were trembling and slow. I speak three languages: Arabic, my mother tongue, and French and English. It is known that in tense and emotional circumstances, when a person is at risk or in a situation of fear, she finds it easier to communicate her emotions in her mother tongue. Not only did I have to reply to this man in English but also in a manner that accurately reflected my emotions. I became so overwhelmed. Once at home, I felt I needed to cry.

Crying would help ease the tremendous anger raging inside me but also would bring me to my humanity — the simple humanity I constantly have to prove exists under my hijab.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I’ve felt insecure on the street; I am not exaggerating. As a woman wearing a hijab, I became an easy target for glares, rude behaviour, bigotry, and Islamophobic comments. I don’t claim that I am constantly a victim. Nevertheless, fears are always in the back of my mind, and unconsciously or consciously, they shape my actions and my attitudes, my words and even my silences. The hypervigilant state I am always in drains me emotionally, and nothing can calm me down until I am at home.

Despite who I think I am or describe myself to be, my appearance speaks more quickly than me in public spaces. The decade-long hammering about the question of “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec, followed by the failed attempt to ban “religious symbols” specifically targeting women in hijab by then premier Pauline Marois in the 2013 provincial election, later taken over by former prime minister Stephen Harper during his “niqab ban” in 2015, created this atmosphere of a vigilante attitude by some Canadians.

These tactics of identity politics are not merely political experiments that magically disappear once an election is over or after a politician is defeated. They are not merely words that fade away with time; they have a long-lasting impact on people and they can lead inevitably to actions.

The dehumanization that Muslim women are subject to — either through classic Orientalist depictions in paintings like The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix or through stereotypes like the cute Jasmine character in Aladdin by Hollywood — is ingrained in people’s imagination. The common, simplistic and wrong perception that the hijab is a symbol of oppression is still alive and thriving, even though many books have been written by Muslim women to declare otherwise.

I don’t know what exactly pushed that man on the bus to ask me that question and to treat me the way he did. Is it just the fact that I was a woman? That would be misogyny. Or is it the fact that I was wearing a headscarf that invested him with the mission to “teach me a lesson”? I can’t ever know for sure. However, as someone who lived through that experience, looked into his eyes and saw his expression, I have a strong feeling that he wouldn’t have talked to me if I wasn’t a woman wearing a headscarf.

As someone who just read that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform,” I do not have the luxury to give that man the benefit of the doubt. I have every right to feel insecure.

My headscarf “told” him that I was “oppressed” anyway: most likely, my husband, my father or my brother are already oppressing me, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it, too? My hijab allows him to oppress me.

Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist, coined the term “misogynoir” to describe misogyny towards Black women, where race and gender both play a role in bias. “Misogynijab” would perhaps be a term to use in those cases where both misogyny and hijab-wearing meet intersectionally.

I believe that populist politicians, with their simplistic and dangerous rhetoric, empower their bases to act upon their words. The dangers of populist politicians like Donald Trump or Doug Ford are not “simple talk” or “controversial tweets” shared in virtual platforms. The impacts of these politicians are what happens to vulnerable people in the streets, on public transit, or in detention centres. Their words are calls for actions. Their words act as green lights for some to “defend” their territories from people who seem weaker than them.

I have never considered myself oppressed. In fact, I think I am privileged. I came to Canada to pursue my graduate studies. I have a family. I have a house and I drive a car. If I didn’t take the bus that day, this incident wouldn’t have happened to me and I would have thought that the world is still a wonderful place and Canada the most “tolerant” city. But obviously, it is not.

Imagine I was a Syrian refugee or any other hijab-wearing woman who doesn’t speak a lot of English, on the bus in the same place. What would have happened? What if the two women who offered support were not there? What if everyone else behaved like bystanders, felt unconcerned by what was happening? What if the bus driver wasn’t cooperative, or worse, indifferent? Most likely, the white man would have been more empowered and even more invested with missions to defend his “public space.”

When I give presentations about Islamophobia, people wonder how it concretely happens. I usually share statistics with them or refer them to examples from the media. Next time, I will tell them this story.

This blog was published on

How Hijab is becoming a neoliberal product for cosmetic and fashion multinationals

Each time I see a young Muslim woman in the front cover of some fashion magazines wearing a “hijab” or rather a sort of a fancy headscarf covering some of her hair, I have mixed feeling.

On one hand, I feel optimistic that “hijab” is becoming more and more visible in some mainstream media. In that sense, it is becoming a “normalized” outfit and this would inevitably reduce the level of rising Islamophobia that is particularly targeting Muslim women. ( Recently, it was reported that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform”)

But one the other hand, I feel that hijab is being “used” by multinational corporations ( L’Oréal, Dolce and Gabbana, Zara…) as a marketing product to appeal to a new group of consumers: young Muslim women. This fact alone makes me feel so outraged as hijab in its essence was never a symbol of marketing but rather a symbol of modesty and resistance to the oppressive social criteria of physical beauty and the never ending demands of consumerism. That doesn’t necessarily means that a Muslim woman who decides to wear a hijab should renounce to beauty or elegance but I personally understand hijab as a way to be at the same time beautiful and still remain modest and discreet and never bow to the rules of the market.

We live in a neoliberal economy that believes in one thing: the free market. In this economy, we are merely consumers who can attain happiness through our levels and patterns of consumption. We are defined by the car we drive, the house we live in and the clothings we wear. In Islam, the economy is one aspect of our lives and doesn’t define us entirely. What really matters in Islam are the ethics of things. What sort of economy do we aspire to? An oppressive economical system where people are left out and with the market deciding of their fate, or a caring economy where the under privileged are “taken care” by a universal healthcare system, affordable housing programs and social welfare for the needy? An economy where personal happiness is becoming the only measure of success and the only objective sought by people or an economy where the general welfare of the population is the goal to be attained together as a whole community? It is through these exact theses lenses that clothing should also be perceived. We dress to cover our nudity and vulnerability but also to be agents of protection rather than an agents of destruction. The clothing we cover ourselves with, are meant to make us beautiful from inside and outside. The clothing we choose to wear are supposed to make us “close” to each other through awareness, sharing and compassion and not divide us through judgements, competition, arrogance and waste.

The hijab is not anyhow excluded from this vision. A hijab isn’t only a piece of fabric to cover the hair. It doesn’t only has a purpose of social etiquette between male and female. Personally, I see hijab as a powerful statement to renounce to the hegemony of fashion and beauty industry that are both unethical and run by corporations motivated solely by profits and greed and predominantly targeting women. So how should I feel when I see a Muslim girl appearing on these magazines with a big smile and a headscarf on her hair. Aren’t these corporations trying to continue to impose images of beauty and success to women whether they are Muslims or not and whether they have hijab or not? Shouldn’t I be concerned by this model of “success”?

What is even more troubling and concerning is that this debate of ethical economy is almost inexistant in “Muslim” countries. In Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that is perceived in the West as the “beacon” of Islam with “Islamic finance” and women covered from head to toe, a neoliberal economy is thriving. Malls with multinational corporations are in all the major cities, even in Makkah, the city that watched the birth of the Prophet Mohamed. Kaaba, the centre of the annual pilgrimage, a ritual of devotion to God where all humans, men and women are requested to dress modestly and avoid all ostentatious signs of beauty and wealth, is today surrounded by high-rise hotel chains filled with neoliberal brands and stores selling clothing that are unethically made in sweat shops. So once, again, what is the meaning of hijab if one one hand we wear it and on the other hand we keep accepting these neoliberal economic models, including fashion and cosmetics? Where is the role of hijab as a symbol of resistance and consciousness? Probably lost or literally hijacked by these new criteria of success, accepted by these same Muslims women posing for these magazines.

Unfortunately, I can only notice that hijab today became a simple accessory like a bag, or a pair of earrings or a watch. A piece of fashion among many other pieces that are daily sold to Muslim women. What is supposed to be a piece of spiritual resistance that defines a “way of an ethical life” was able to be “appropriated” by this neoliberal economy and turned into a marketing tool with huge profits.