On January 29, 2017, a man opened fire on Canadian Muslim worshipers in a Québec City mosque. The shooter emptied his clip and then fled the scene, surrendering later that night to police. Six men were killed as a result of the shooting: Azzeddine Soufiane, a shopkeeper of Moroccan descent, Abdelkrim Hassane, a government IT worker born in Algeria, Mamadou Barry and Ibrahima Barry, two unrelated civil servants from Guinea, Khaled Belkacemi, a professor of Algerian background, and Boubaker Thabti, a pharmacy worker.
The targeted mosque had been threatened prior to the massacre, when a pig’s head was left at the front doorstep during Ramadan in 2016. The shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, has since been described by those who know him as a white nationalist. He is also a supporter of Donald Trump and far right French politician Marine Le Pen.
Following the shooting, much of the Canadian press expressed surprise that such an incident could occur in Canada, a nation popularly considered a model for integration and inclusion of immigrants. But, as I explored in a previous article, a close inspection of the nation’s past shows that the idea of Canadian tolerance is misleading. Even today, hate crimes are rising across the nation, and public opinion polls reveal a growing distrust of Muslim immigrants in particular. For example, a December 2016 poll revealed that 28% of Canadians hold an unfavorable view of Islam. In the province of Québec alone that number rises to 48%.
The Rise of Islamophobia
Some alarming incidents have taken place since the Québec mosque massacre, including a bomb threat against Muslim students in Montreal’s Concordia University (March 2017), an aggressive anti-Islam protest outside a downtown Toronto mosque (February 2017), and a Qur’an ripped to shreds by a protester at a school board meeting in Mississauga (March 2017).
Secondary schools in the Greater Toronto Area allocate (Friday) prayer space for observant Muslim students, which is required under Ontario’s provincial laws on religious accommodation. Opponents, however, have accused the local school board of fueling an “Islamic takeover” of public institutions. The campaign against Islamic prayer spaces in public schools has led to death threats towards a local imam, and the targeting of minors. For instance, a YouTube celebrity from Mississauga, Ontario offered a financial reward to anybody capturing film footage of teenaged students praying in public schools. On June 17, 2017, a group of protesters aggressively picketed a high school in Mississauga while verbally harassing students and their parents.
The Forces Fueling Islamophobia
These incidents are a mere sampling of rising hate crimes against Muslim Canadians. The reasons for this trend are numerous.
First, as organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have convincingly argued, U.S. President Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric has encouraged hate crimes south of the Canadian border. Indeed, Trump’s actions are part of a strong current of nativist populism that has been growing over the years on a global level, particularly in Europe. Canada, of course, has not been spared. Trump’s electoral victory created a cross-national rise in anti-immigrant, right-wing populism. The Canadian man who made the bomb threat against Muslim students at Concordia University in March 2017, for example, stated in a letter that: “Now that President Trump is in the office south of the border, things have changed.”
Second, some Canadian media commentators have pointed to the xenophobic politics used by Canada’s own right-leaning politicians in explaining rising anti-Muslim sentiment across the country. For example, in January 2015, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Canadian mosques of fostering radicalization, without presenting any evidence whatsoever. During the 2015 electoral season, the Conservative Party of Canada (which was led by Harper at the time) tarred prominent Muslim activists while deploying dog-whistle politics against the Canadian Muslim community through a proposed ‘barbaric practices’ police tip line. The proposal encouraged Canadian citizens to report cultural practices in their communities that purportedly threaten Canadian “values.” Politicians and media pundits linked such practices, such as child and forced marriages, exclusively to the Muslim community.
Kellie Leitch, until recently a contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party, took the “barbaric practices” tip line even further by proposing a “Canadian values” screening test for incoming immigrants. Leitch also openly welcomed Donald Trump’s presidential victory in November 2016, calling it an “exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada as well.”
Islamophobia and the Canadian Media
The Canadian media has also received its share of criticism for normalizing anti-Muslim hatred through biased news coverage. Chief among the outlets criticized is Rebel Media. Often described as Canada’s answer to Breitbart News, Rebel Media is a far-right, online political/social commentary outlet founded in 2015.
Rebel Media was established by Ezra Levant, a former commentator from the now defunct Sun News Network. Levant is a controversial figure who previously made racist remarks against the Roma community. He has been sued for libel numerous times (twice successfully). During one such trial in 2014, the judge declared that Levant showed a “reckless disregard for the truth.”
Rebel Media itself has pushed the largely discredited “Eurabia” conspiracy theory often flaunted by Islamophobes and white nationalists. According to this theory, immigrants from Muslim-majority countries seek to overrun the West and impose Shari’a law. Rebel commentators have also promoted a ‘white genocide’ theory, claiming that the rate of “ethnic change” caused by immigration to the West will result in “white flight” and minority status for white populations.
Earlier this year, Rebel Media featured the writing of Gavin McInnes, the founder of the so-called Proud Boys. Established in 2016, the Proud Boys is a far-right men’s organization of self-described “Western chauvinists.” As a correspondent for Rebel Media, McInnes peddled overtly anti-Semitic rants that dabbled in Holocaust revisionism and invoked classical anti-Semitic tropes (for example, blaming Jewish people for the Ukrainian famine in the early 1930s). Ezra Levant, who is Jewish himself, stood by Gavin McInnes after the controversy that followed his anti-Semitic commentary.
Immediately after the Québec City mosque shooting, Rebel Media spread an unsubstantiated claim that there were in fact two shooters, with one being of Moroccan (Muslim) origin. This was based on the initial arrest of a Muslim Canadian, Mohammed Khadir, as a possible second shooter. Khadir was promptly released after it was confirmed he was only performing first aid on a victim. Nevertheless, Rebel Media pundits posited that because two men were initially arrested, there must have been a cover-up to protect the “Muslim” assailant. For this far-fetched theory to be true, it would have required the complicity of Québec City police, as well as the Prime Minister of Canada and every other media outlet reporting on the shooting.
The Soldiers of Odin
Another anti-Muslim group that has recently emerged in Canada is the Soldiers of Odin. The original Soldiers of Odin was established in Finland by Mike Ranta, a self-confessed neo-Nazi. The Canadian chapter of the group made its debut in 2016 by conducting foot (street) patrols that were supposedly necessary to protect Canadian communities (and Canadian “values”) from “criminal” illegal aliens.
In the spring of 2017, the Canadian Soldiers of Odin splintered into factions due to disagreements over whether to associate with the original Finnish group. While the Canadian chapter still formally exists, it appears that the organization has weakened since its establishment.
Despite the organizational fragmentation of the Soldiers of Odin, various other xenophobic groups are ready to take the helm, including militant right-wing organizations in Alberta and Québec. Some of these groups attempted to set up a “Million Canadian March” in Ottawa on June 3, 2017, but only managed to rally a few hundred people.
More Must Be Done to Combat Islamophobia in Canada
The national outlook is quite mixed when it comes to emergent far-right groups in Canada. While some organizations, such as the Soldiers of Odin, have shown they lack the organizational capability to build a popular movement, right-wing groups still appear to be an overall potent force.
The federal government has looked for ways to deal with these organizations, as well as the upsurge in Islamophobia in Canada. The most prominent example is M-103, a non-binding motion passed by Parliament in March 2017, by a vote of 201-91. The motion specifically condemned discrimination and hatred against Muslim Canadians and demanded the government formulate a plan of action “to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear.”
After the motion was first proposed on December 5, 2016, there was a near immediate response from Islamophobes. These groups, including Rebel Media, began promoting a conspiracy theory, claiming M-103 would lead to the establishment of Shari’a law in Canada. Iqra Khalid, the Minister of Parliament (MP) behind the motion, received over 50,000 hateful e-mails, including multiple death threats. Since March 4, 2017, the Soldiers of Odin, along with other anti-Muslim groups, have organized anti-M-103 rallies (sometimes violent) every first Saturday of each month.
Six Muslim Canadians have already died in Quebec City as a result of anti-Muslim rhetoric. While it is still uncertain where the far-right movement will go, it is clear that Canadians and their government must do more to combat its growth and articulation.