Cases of xenophobia and Islamophobia have erupted across Canada. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, a mosque in Peterborough, ON. was set on fire, two Muslim women were targeted on public transportation in Toronto, and a Quebec man has been arrested for threatening to kill an Arab every week. In this context, McGill may seem like an oasis; current and former McGill students displayed their trust and unity in public spaces. Muslims have gone on the defensive to ensure that they are not associated with the militant fundamentalists behind the terrorist attacks that have taken place around the world. Rebuilding trust within the community is more important, and more difficult than ever; the provincial government may take the first steps in creating a new paradigm of inclusivity and tolerance.
With any act of terrorism, attitudes change. But, as Canada’s Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan has stated, maintaining a free and democratic society is the best defence against violent Islamic fundamentalists. And yet this is easier said than done. One need only look back to 2013, and the debate surrounding the Charter of Values in Quebec for a glimpse into the attitudes that are held by many in this province.
Currently, while some American states chose to close their borders to refugees, the Quebec government and Canada are ambitious in their humanitarian objectives. The Canadian government has pledged to bring 25,000 refugees before the end of 2015, and Quebec has said it will welcome up to 6,000 refugees this year. Most Syrian refugees have so far been supported by private sponsorship, not the government. The message that the provincial government is sending is worse than mixed; it is muddled and opaque. If hindsight is 20/20, the picture is bleak; for all the talk of inclusivity and a new era of tolerance in Quebec, little is being done to ensure that the society these refugees are coming to will be welcoming. The result is a marginalization of already marginalized groups, which is complicit to the hate that Premier Couillard says he stands against.
Quebec society has a history of pockets of xenophobia. In 2015, Rania El-Alloul was not allowed to wear her hijab in a Quebec courtroom. The former Conservative government’s stance on the niqab issue garnered support in Quebec in the 2015 federal election. Given the current international political situation, and the violence that has already transpired against women wearing niqabs and mosques, policies that promote tolerance are more important than ever. But despite the high stakes, the Quebec legislature is passing contradictory legislation that, in its imbalance, will provide the excuse for racism. Restricting Muslim dress, such as head and face coverings for public sector employees, and pouring funding into de-radicalization programs disproportionately targets those who would seek safety and tolerance in Quebec; the irony is heavy. The policies of Quebec and Montreal do not live up to the lip-service that is paid to the image of Canada as a multicultural and inclusive society. The provincial government must set a unified, clear example in its policy towards minorities and refugees; otherwise, the province will be divided in its support for refugees at a time when it ought to be laying the groundwork for accepting more out of an increasing numbers of those in need, and promoting tolerance of minorities.
All students have a responsibility to cultivate a positive environment; such a response must not only be neutral, it must be proactive. In a world of fear, hate, and uncertainty, it is essential that McGill act as a space of mutual respect. Students must not take the general sense of safety for granted, as we are all susceptible to the message of those who would divide us. In this context, the university must recall its response to the charter in 2013; professors stood up against the proposed law, and the university itself took a united stance in dissent. While this action will not end prejudice, it is what the university must strive for.
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