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Sofia Diogo Mateus
October 31, 2014

After last week's shooting in Ottawa, a Canadian teenager decided to see how people would react to anti-Muslim prejudice. His video has gone viral, but how has Canada really reacted to the attack?

Screenshot from YouTube Canadians Reacting to Ottawa Shooting Racism
Image: YouTube/Omar Albach

Shortly after the attack on the Canadian parliament on October 22, Omar Al-Bach, an 18-year old student at York University, decided to make a video to see whether people were prejudiced towards Muslims. He hired two friends, Zach and Devin, to perform a public stunt at a local bus stop in Hamilton - the hometown of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the soldier shot dead in the Ottawa attack.

In the video, Zach was dressed in traditional Muslim clothing and was standing at a bus stop. His friend Devin then walked up to Zach and asked him to take the next bus, saying he didn't feel comfortable with what he was wearing - an obvious case of religious discrimination.

The responses from bystanders are immediate. The first man in the video immediately responds to Devin's suggestion: "You can't stereotype and judge people by their clothes or their nationalities or anything else. (…) What happened there, it was an incident of fanatics. Everybody cannot be punished like that." The man promptly states that Zach is his friend and that he is with him.

The reactions repeat themselves, with another man interrupting the second enactment to advocate the man's right to wear whatever he wants. "I'm gonna go home and put a turban on, and I want the first person to tell me I can't come down here and wear a turban or a dress." In another moment, a woman repeats the feeling saying that while the events were awful and tragic, she doesn't think "that's any reason to persecute people based on what they're wearing."

As the quarrels continue, one man sucker-punches Devin, telling him to get lost - an incident that brings out the police. The actors then explain the situation, saying they do not wish to press charges. The video ends with the actor saying that while the experiment didn't end on the best of notes, he is happy that people stood up to a seemingly racist man.

Canadian values

The video has predictably gone viral, counting more than 2 million views on YouTube as of Friday and thousands of shares on social media platforms. The majority of the comments in the social network have praised the response:

Al-Bach told DW that he made the video after the shooting because he "wanted to see what people thought of Muslims after Ottawa, since there has been a lot of speculation and rumors about it." He adds that he was happy with the result, saying the final product shows "true Canadian values," a feeling echoed on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.

Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the human rights and civil liberties of Muslims in Canada, told DW the organization thinks the video "reflects the majority of Canadians' feelings," and more importantly, a rejection of the "politics of fear and division that extremists on both ends of the political spectrum use, violent extremists and fear mongers."

But that isn't the whole picture, said Sikander Hashmi, the imam of the Kanata Muslim Association, located in the Ottawa suburbs. "I think the video has been received very positively because it showcases how a lot of Canadians really want to feel about their country - that it is a tolerant, kind nation that won't be overtaken by fear and hatred. To a large degree, I think it's true but I also think there is growing hatred as well."

Mixed feelings

Although there aren't any concrete numbers, the NCCM has received more reports of anti-Muslim harassment and discrimination since the Ottawa attack, a reality Hashmi has also witnessed.

"There have been incidents of visibly Muslim women [wearing the hijab] being verbally assaulted, children being bullied in school, hateful comments being left on cars and even a mosque being vandalized," he said. "Even before the attack, there were periodic incidents but overall, I think Canada still is a very tolerant and accepting country."

The mosque incident is perhaps the best example of the two faces of Canadian attitudes towards Muslims. Two days after the shooting in the capital, a mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta, was vandalized overnight with the words "Canada" and "Go Home" sprayed in red over its front door.

The local community showed up the following day to help re-paint the building's entrance and left messages of support:

Gardee said it's hard to say exactly if the shootings have exacerbated the anti-Muslim feeling but what he does know for sure is that it isn't new. "Since 9/11, the community has been under the microscope," he said.

Polls by Angus Reid, a public opinion research firm, also show a steady increase in anti-Muslim sentiment since 2009, higher than any of the other major religions. Last year, 54 percent of English-speaking Canadians viewed Islam unfavorably, a feeling that stands even higher, at 69 percent, in the country's French-speaking region, Quebec. A video shot about a month before the parliament attacks shows just that: a man berating a woman on a bus for wearing a headscarf - and with the exception of one man who insults the man, most passengers remained quiet.

Last year, the province's government tried to introduce the Quebec Charter of Values, which, according to the bill, affirms "the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and the equality between women and men." The bill was seen as a veiled attack on the Muslim community, with reports of increased incidents of verbal and physical assaults against veiled Muslim women in the province after the charter was introduced. During some of the assaults, people used the charter as an excuse to berate the women.

Despite all this, Hashmi pointed out that Muslims are, for the most part, very well accepted in Canada. "We have Muslims in practically every profession, many corporations offer worship spaces for employees, grocery flyers for large national supermarket chains advertise specials for ethnic holidays including Islamic ones and halal meat is available at major chains across the country," he said.

"As far as the Canadian Muslim community is concerned, I believe we need to continue with our efforts to do outreach in order to counter hate," said Hashmi. "To a certain degree, there have been efforts to reach out to our fellow citizens, for example by offering gifts to neighbors on our holidays, volunteering and fundraising for mainstream causes such as hospitals and food banks and taking part in multi-faith dialogue. These efforts need to continue to grow."