Canada has seen a spike in suspected hate crimes since a fatal attack on a mosque in Quebec City. Experts now say rising xenophobia and divisive, political rhetoric is cause for concern, Jillian Kestler-D'Amours reports.
For Muslim worshipers at the downtown Toronto mosque, the initial response was shock, as protesters rallied outside Masjid Toronto last Friday (February 17), carrying signs that read, "No to Islam," and "Muslims are Terrorists."
The incident struck at the heart of Canada's most racially diverse city, and shook a community that is still reeling after a deadly attack on a mosque in Quebec City less than a month ago.
"You go into your place of worship, and you come out, having that sense of rejuvenation and having that spiritual element in your mind, and you're greeted by this," said Memona Hossain, national director of community engagement for the Muslim Association of Canada, which operates the mosque.
"It was definitely [a] shock," Hossain told DW.
But the wider Toronto community quickly mobilized to hold a counter demonstration, and messages of support still line the mosque's outer walls (photo, above). "Diversity is our strength," reads one sign. "Love + Support for our Muslim brothers and sisters," reads another.
"The anti-protest group that showed up was very reassuring for the community," Hossain said. "I think that really helped calm and settle the waters."
Islamophobia on the rise
But the rally is one of several recent incidents that have left Canadians concerned about a seeming rise of xenophobia across the country, and increasingly hostile rhetoric from a small but vocal segment of the population and political class.
Caroline de Kloet, a media relations officer for the Toronto Police Service, told DW that while various incidents "that appear to be motivated by hate" have come to the police's attention in recent weeks, there does not appear to be a noticeable increase.
Police are investigating the rally, as well as another recent incident in which anti-Semitic notes were left on the doors of Jewish residents of a Toronto condo building.
"When these incidents are reported to police, they are investigated by divisional officers working in partnership with members of our Hate Crime Unit," de Kloet said in an email, adding that community members should report incidents when they happen.
Recent events have been especially troubling as Muslim Canadians continue to grapple with the aftermath of anattack on the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City that killed six Muslim worshipers and injured more than a dozen others on January 29.
That attack was widely condemned as an act of terrorism, and thousands of Canadians joined vigils and rallies in support of the victims and their families, and the wider Muslim community.
But while hate crimes were down in Canada between 2012 and 2014, the most recent period for which the data is available, hate crimes targeting Muslims more than doubled in that same period, according to Statistics Canada.
Last year, a pig's head was left outside the Quebec City mosque where last month's attack took place, and a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario, was firebombed just after the 2015 federal election.
Muslim women have also been cursed, spat on and assaulted in various incidents across the country.
In recent weeks, two mosques in Montreal have had their windows smashed in, and at least two dozen suspected hate crimes were reported, according to city police.
"With the last federal election, with the arrival of Syrian refugees, there has been a growth of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, and that's been intersecting with anti-Muslim sentiment," said Amira Elghawaby, spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an advocacy group that tracks hate incidents.
Canada has resettled more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015.
But a new Angus Reid Institute survey found that 41 percent of Canadians thought the government had taken in too many refugees and should close the door.
One in four people surveyed also said Canada should have adopted the same policy as US President Donald Trump, and enacted a temporary ban on Syrian refugees.
Backlash over motion to condemn racism
According to Elghawaby, it is crucial that Canadian leaders come forward to reinforce "that Canadian Muslims are part of the Canadian fabric … and that we are going to confront hatred together, whatever community is being targeted."
But a recent parliamentary motion that seeks to condemn Islamophobia in Canada has seemingly done the opposite, rattling right-wing and anti-Islam activists, and conservative politicians and media columnists alike.
Motion 103 calls on the federal government to "recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear" and condemn all forms of systemic racism and religious-based discrimination, including Islamophobia.
The non-binding motion also instructs Ottawa to establish a committee to investigate systemic racism and track hate crimes.
Right-wing groups say it is an attack on freedom of speech, and some have even gone so far as to say it signals the first step towards establishing sharia, Islamic law, in Canada.
Proponents have rejected those allegations as baseless, and the motion has the backing of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government, as well as the left-leaning New Democratic Party.
But that hasn't quelled the debate - or rising tensions.
Iqra Khalid, the parliament member who sponsored the motion, has reported being inundated with messages of hate and threats this month. And four leading politicians, all vying for the Conservative Party leadership, spoke at an event in Toronto organized by the Rebel, Canada's version of far-right website Breitbart, to denounce it.
"I think it's very disappointing that once again we're seeing Canadian Muslims being used as a wedge issue, as a way to score political points," Elghawaby said.
'New chapter' for Canada
Canadian politicians have used incendiary rhetoric before.
Canada's former prime minister, Stephen Harper, made banning women from wearing a niqab, a full face veil, during citizenship ceremonies a pillar of his 2015 election campaign, even though very few women in Canada actually wear a niqab. His party also suggested creating a tip line to call in "barbaric cultural practices," a move that was criticized as an attempt to intimidate Muslim immigrants and other newcomers.
But this is "a new chapter" for Canada, according to Barbara Perry, an expert on right-wing extremist movements and hate crimes at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
Perry said that far-right movements in Canada appear to be emboldened by global trends, and by Trump's rhetoric and policies south of the border, and she has noted more activity by right-wing groups online since the Quebec City mosque was attacked.
"Maybe that's one of the problems, that we continue to say, 'That can't happen here. That can't happen here,' and sort of bury our heads in the sand," Perry said.
"The impact was muted when it was a European thing: It wasn't part of a North American trajectory or pattern, and now it very much is … It's much harder I think to ignore."