Islamophobia festers in Canadaʹs Francophone heart

In June Canada's French-speaking province Quebec passed Bill 21, banning the wearing of religious symbols or garments by certain public servants in the workplace. Aside from the civil rights implications, the bill has also made visible minorities, specifically Muslims, the target of racist attacks. By Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

In May of 2019, even before the bill was passed by the Quebec legislature, there was a notable uptick in verbal assaults and harassment of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab. Justice Femme, an advocacy group based in Montreal that offers legal and psychological support to all women, said they'd received 40 complaints from Muslim women since the Bill was presented to parliament in March.

The report they presented listed four cases of physical assault, including being spat upon and attempts to forcibly remove a woman's hijab; six cases of harassment and intimidation in the work place; and more than a dozen examples of cyberbullying. A spokesperson for the organisation said the women all refused to file complaints because they felt the provincial government was legitimising discrimination.

Unfortunately Francois Legault, Premier of Quebec, has done nothing to assuage people's fears with his comments. On the anniversary of one of Canada's worst mass shootings, the killing of six people while praying in a Quebec City mosque, Legault said there was no need for a day commemorating the killings, a day committed to combatting Islamophobia, as Islamophobia didn't exist in the province. Although his office immediately issued a statement admitting there might be individual cases of hatred against Muslim people, what he meant was there is no widespread problem in the province.

You may also like: Right-wing populism in Europe and the USA: Those who cry wolf

A marked rise in racist incidents

However, the premierʹs claim is negated by the number public racist incidents. In fact they point to a deeper, more ingrained and more widespread problem. While the mayors of Quebec's two most cosmopolitan cities, Montreal and its capital Quebec City, have gone on record stating they don't support the new bill, that hasn't stopped incidents of violence and abuse occurring in both cities.

The coffin with one of the victims of the mosque shooting in Quebec City arrives in Montreal for a funeral service on Thursday, 2 February 2017 (photo: picture alliance/AP Photo/G. Hughes)
Legitimising discrimination: on the anniversary of one of Canada's worst mass shootings, the killing of six people while praying in a Quebec City mosque, Francois Legault, Premier of Quebec said there was no need for a day commemorating the killings – a day committed to combatting Islamophobia – as Islamophobia didn't exist in the province

A Quebec City man who was stabbed after leaving a convenience store is convinced this new culture of racism is the fault of Quebec's premier. Karim Samaini, who immigrated to Canada from France, says Legault has stirred up racist feelings in the province through his passing of Bill 21. In a video he posted on YouTube after the stabbing attack he claims he's subject to racist abuse three to four times a week. He also worries about how this type of atmosphere could lead to an uptick in the radicalisation of Muslim youth.

When they hear their religion and their ethnicity continuously disparaged on the radio or in the street he worries that they won't help but feel marginalised, becoming perfect fodder for recruitment into extremist activities. Radicalisation researchers have confirmed that extremist groups target those who are excluded from the mainstream. They pinpoint the disaffected, lifting them out of their role as passive victims to offer them a means of revenge, even providing them with a twisted sense of self-esteem.Even more shocking perhaps was a more recent attack when a man verbally assaulted a mother and daughter with racial slurs on a street in Montreal. Neither the women, her two-year-old daughter, nor another woman accompanying them were wearing any visible symbols to identify their faith, but they were speaking Arabic, which is what triggered the abuse. The attack captured on video by the victims is disturbing for the hatred the man heaped on the women.

When Islamophobia becomes acceptable

Not only did he verbally abuse the women for speaking Arabic, he also put his face down to the child and made lewd comments about her mother. The two women then witnessed him harassing a woman wearing a hijab as he made his way down the street. Like Samaini, the mother believes the new legislation is encouraging people in this type of behaviour. She doesn't believe he would have approached her before the new law was implemented.

You may also like: Islamophobia and xenophobia: The West’s racism problem

She is supported in her opinion by the Montreal representative of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women Shaheen Ashraf. She said "Mr. Legault and his government have enabled these people to come out of the woodwork and harass Muslim women."

While government spokespeople make all the right noises, denouncing the incidents, they continue to claim there is no link between them and the new secularism law. However that flies in the face of a report UN Human Rights observers made in May 2019, before Bill 21 was passed into legislation.

While the letter focusses mainly on the civil rights implications of the bill, reminding Canada and Quebec of their obligations under human rights treaties to which they are signatories, it also stresses how the measure particularly singles out Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab.

Whose "religious heritage"?

Perhaps most disturbing is the government of Quebec's refusal to consider the idea that this spike in hate against Muslims might in any way be connected to their new legislation. This in spite of a report issued by a government research group on diversity which includes the ominous line, "we cannot omit mentioning that the law could increase the probability that ... violent events occur". Interestingly they were not invited to testify at the legislative hearings held prior to Bill 21's passage.

The provincial government of Quebec, Canada, while perhaps not deliberately fanning the flames of racism, seems to have done nothing to prevent its spread. While Bill 21 claims to be about secularism, recent announcements like a $20 million fund to preserve the province's "religious heritage" by restoring and preserving Catholic buildings throughout the province, seem to fly in the face of that assertion.

Whatever the bill's intent, the government of Quebec needs to recognise it has created a problem and deal with it quickly. Otherwise the issue of race and religious bigotry will continue to fester and poison the province.

Richard Marcus

© 2019