January 29, 2017, marked one year since the mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque that left six Muslim men dead and nineteen injured. The alleged gunman, twenty-eight-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette, has since been charged with six counts of first-degree murder, and six counts of attempted murder using a restricted firearm. His trial is scheduled to begin in March 2018.
To mark the anniversary of the shooting, over 1,000 people, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier (head of provincial government) Philippe Couillard, gathered in Quebec City on Monday night to attend a vigil honoring those who were murdered. In Ottawa, several memorials were organized by local organizations, and Mayor Jim Watson declared Monday a national day of remembrance and action against hate and bigotry. In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Trudeau used the occasion to urge Canadians to “speak up and stand tall against Islamophobia.”
The outpouring of community support, as well as the acknowledgement by government officials that the shooting was a hate crime, is certainly encouraging. But, behind the show of unity and concomitant celebratory media coverage hides a dangerous and still widely unacknowledged problem: the continuing growth in anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country.
In June 2017, Statistics Canada released data showing that, from 2012-2015, police-reported (and investigated) hate-crimes against Muslims across Canada more than tripled. This is despite an overall decrease in police-reported hate crimes within the same time frame. According to data collected by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), anti-Muslim hate crimes have been steadily increasing since the release of the Stats Canada report.
A 2016 survey by the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants found that more than half of Ontario residents (Canada’s most populous province) believe Islam promotes violence, while three quarters feel that Muslim immigrants espouse “fundamentally different values” from other Canadians. According to Quebec City Police Chief Robert Pigeon, police reported hate-crimes targeting Muslim people or institutions in Quebec (Canada’s second most populated province) doubled in 2017, as compared to the previous year. In addition, a November 2017 Angus Reid Institute poll on Canadian attitudes towards the role of religion in society shows that while most Canadians accept a “small role for religion in the public square,” almost half of those polled consider Islam a negative force that is “damaging” to Canadian society.
Media coverage of Muslims and the so-called “Islamic world” has played a critical role in fueling these perceptions, while also reflecting popular attitudes. In April 2017, the Center for Immigration and Settlement at Ryerson University released a working paper analyzing Canadian media, during the apex of federal government efforts to resettle Syrian refugees (September 2015-April 2016). It found that mainstream outlets by and large represented Muslims as having a culture fundamentally incompatible with “Canadian values,” and as security threats.
Despite the revealing nature of these trends, most Canadians remain unwilling to acknowledge Islamophobia’s pervasive reach inside the country. Instead, the carefully cultivated national mythology, according to which Canadians are fundamentally tolerant and accommodating of diversity, continues to obstruct national introspection and, in turn, prevent the development of collective strategies to combat discrimination.
Most recently, for example, Quebec’s main opposition parties rejected a proposal made by the NCCM to turn the anniversary of the mosque shooting into a national day of action against Islamophobia. According to Samuel Poulin, a spokesperson for the opposition party Coalition Avenir Québec, the proposal was inappropriate because the mosque shooting was an “intolerable act of one person and not that of an entire society.” Columnist Barbara Kay echoed this widely held sentiment in the National Post, arguing that Canada must not adopt a national campaign against Islamophobia because the mosque shooting, while deplorable, was a random act of violence that in no way reflects general Canadian attitudes toward Muslims.
This hostility to acknowledging Islamophobia in Canadian society is also reflected in the case of an eleven-year-old school girl in Toronto, Ontario, who reported to her teachers on January 12 that her hijab was cut by a stranger wielding scissors. After Toronto police determined that the story was fabricated, the young girl and her family were viciously berated online and in print media. She was widely condemned for her “unpatriotic” smear, while right-wing commentators accused her of exposing a Muslim conspiracy to fool Canadians into thinking that anti-Muslim hatred is a real issue (ironically, the wide-scale attack on an eleven-year-old Muslim girl reflects precisely that).
The social scientific data speaks for itself: Islamophobia is indeed a real issue in Canada that needs to be addressed. Before this can even begin to happen, however, Canadian exceptionalism must be deconstructed.