WARNING: This story includes details of hate crimes, racism and Islamophobia, and may affect those who have experienced it or know someone who has.
At a public hearing in Vancouver this week, members of B.C.’s Muslim community called for more concrete action to address Islamophobia in the province and across the country.
On Wednesday, British Columbians, including scholars and community leaders gathered at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre for a public hearing, part of a country-wide study on Islamophobia by the Senate Committee on Human Rights.
As attendees and speakers testified about their personal experiences and research, the message in the room was clear: Islamophobia is growing in British Columbia and Canada, and more needs to be done.
In the past five years, more Muslims have been killed in targeted hate attacks in Canada than in any other G-7 country — because of Islamophobia, according to the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“I am really troubled that Islamophobia is increasing in Canada … there’s still a lot of work to do,” said Sen. Mobina Jaffer, who represents B.C. in the Senate of Canada.
The Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline — established in B.C. by the legal community to offer free and confidential legal advice to victims of Islamophobia — says there have been 113 calls confirmed to be directly related to Islamophobia since the hotline started in 2016, including incidents of discrimination in employment, at school, hospitals and prisons.
Hasan Alam, community liaison for the hotline, cited examples of how women wearing hijabs are verbally and physically assaulted and how Muslims face microaggressions.
“Feeling it day in and day out in your workplace, maybe at the grocery store. And I think those microaggressions can have an incredible impact on someone’s mental health,” he said.
Anti-racism education a priority
Among the topics discussed at the hearing was the importance of anti-racism education and bystander training at institutions, including K-12 education and workplaces.
“It should happen in all spectrums of society because Islamophobia is showing up in all spectrums of society,” said Alam.
“We need to empower people to intervene when Islamophobia happens and to speak out against it and stop it from happening.”
At the hearing, Rachna Singh, B.C.’s first parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, said the Ministry of Education is creating a K-12 anti-racism action plan to give students and staff guidance on how to respond to incidents of hate and racism.
“It is important that we use our collective voices to stand in solidarity against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate in any of its form,” said Singh, who is also an NDP MLA.
More funding needed
According to the B.C. Muslim Association, more funding support is also needed for grassroots organizations supporting the Muslim community — including in efforts to find jobs, filling out government paperwork, and accessing mental health resources.
“The list [of needs] is endless, and we find that we don’t have the capacity to support the community,” said Tahzi Ali, assistant general secretary for the association, adding that it’s important to develop programs in spaces that Muslims trust, such as mosques and community centres.
“Our community feels comfortable within our institutions.”
Greater representation in media
Speakers also discussed how greater representation is needed in the news, movies and advertisements to normalize the diversity of Canada’s Muslim community.
“Unfortunately, Muslims have been caught between the frames of being a victim or a terrorist and particularly the image of Muslim women as powerless,” Neila Miled, anti-racism advisor at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine, told CBC.
“Media plays an important role in deconstructing these images and reconstructing new images through the stories of those who are the Muslims now in Canada.”
She says it’s important to understand how Islamophobia impacts Muslims with intersectional identities. A black Muslim woman who wears a veil, for example, faces the highest levels of marginalization.
“She is first of all marginalized and oppressed because of her colour. And she’s also oppressed and marginalized because of her veil as a Muslim. And this produces a huge challenge for them,” she said.
Sen. Salma Ataullahjan of Ontario, who is leading the study as chair of the Senate Committee on Human Rights, says the hearing provided powerful testimonies.
“Believe me, it’s gotten really worse,” she said, reflecting on hate speech on social media, attacks on women for wearing a hijab, and discrimination faced by Muslim students.
Ataullahjan says the hearing has made the senate committee rethink the word ‘Islamophobia,’ and consider the need to focus more on the challenges that result from racism, rather than simply the fear of Muslims.
“It’s an inadequate word to speak of the racism,” she said. “We feel that Islamophobia describes the fear of Muslims. What it doesn’t speak of is the consequences that fear brings.”
She says the study on Islamophobia in Canada, which began in June, will include a report and recommendations to the federal government. Another public hearing was conducted in Edmonton this week, with more planned for other provinces.