On behalf of our members, thank you, Madam Chair and members of the committee, for giving our voices the opportunity to be heard today.
The Canadian Council of Imams was established in 1990 and is the only Canadian body that represents imams from across the country.
Canadian Muslims are not new to Canada. The first Muslim child on record to be born in this land was born in 1854, over a decade before Confederation. His name was James Love Jr., and he was born to James Love and Agnes Love.
It was another 84 years before Canada's first mosque opened in 1938. The building of the Al Rashid mosque in Edmonton was spearheaded by women, who approached then Mayor John Fry for land. They raised the $5,000 needed to establish the mosque from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish donors.
Today, like many other Canadians, the overwhelming majority of Canadian Muslims are grateful for the safety, prosperity, and opportunities offered by our country that enable them to study, work, worship, raise their families, and enjoy all that our country has to offer while giving back in a relatively safe and equitable environment. However, we see signs of trouble on the horizon.
As has been well established in the presence of this committee, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise. The heartbreaking attack at the Islamic cultural centre in Quebec City on January 29 of this year was the single most horrific mass killing at a place of worship in Canadian history. Aboriginal, black, Jewish, and Sikh communities, among others, also continue to be targeted in Canada.
It would be naive at best to sit back and say that the government has no role to play in enhancing the safety, security, and inclusion of minorities in Canadian society. After all, democracy brings with it the responsibility to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
The right to worship and practise one's faith freely and openly as one sees fit, without infringing upon the rights of others, is a fundamental right, yet this fundamental right of Canadian Muslims is being eroded by those who seek to instill fear within the Canadian Muslim community through attacks and intimidation tactics. This fear negatively impacts Canadian Muslim women and children in particular.
As imams, we often hear about cases of Canadian Muslim women being verbally harassed and in some cases physically attacked while going about their business. Such attacks leave deep psychological scars on the victims and on the broader Muslim community, leaving many women afraid to go out alone.
Children are not only bullied by their peers in schools. As we saw in the Peel region in Ontario, Muslim children were intimidated by protesters who were targeting schools. These children were singled out simply because they had exercised their fundamental right to attend Friday prayer services at school. Friday is the holiest day of the week for Muslims, and prayer services are held in the early afternoon.
Unlike Jews and Christians, Muslims do not have their holy day off. Therefore, prayers need to be held at school during lunch hours to accommodate students who believe attendance at Friday prayers is mandatory for them as observing Muslims. Making them choose between praying and studying would be a form of systemic discrimination.
In our view, the growing climate of fear is fuelled by a few factors.
First, violent radicals who claim to speak in the name of Islam—and against whom we continue to fight ideologically and through co-operation with authorities—have been given legitimacy by some political leaders, authorities, and the media through giving them the attention they crave and by accepting their misrepresentation of Islamic teachings as being true.
Terrorists use publicity to instill fear as a means of furthering their agendas. Deprive them of publicity, and you suck the oxygen out of their narrative. In practical terms, this means reducing the coverage of terrorism trials and radical propaganda, such as videos. The foiling of terror plots, including the one that was foiled after a tip from a Canadian imam, should be announced and treated by authorities in the same way as other criminal activity. Doing otherwise feeds the violent radical ego and narrative.
Second, those who harbour hatred against Islam and Muslims, or against certain subsects within Islam, often use as examples actions by Muslims in other parts of the world—which many times are misrepresented—as a reason for fearing Canadian Muslims. Let us be clear: we are Canadians. We have encouraged and will continue to encourage the practice of Islam in Canada in a manner that does not contravene Canadian law and that is protected by the fundamental charter freedoms of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression.
When speaking about Muslims or any other group in Canada, it is crucial that we base our discussions on the current realities as lived in Canada, because Canada is unique and the Canadian Muslim experience is unique. It must not be conflated with the realities of Muslims elsewhere in the world.
Haters generally prey upon those who are generally ignorant, spreading fear and mistrust, particularly through the Internet, by highlighting isolated incidents or by misrepresenting facts. For example, a tragic family killing in Ottawa last year was determined by authorities to be a case of family violence involving clear evidence of mental health issues. It was not an honour killing, yet a radical Canadian media outlet not only promoted a conspiracy that the crime was an honour killing, which is un-Islamic, but even went so far as to visit the Islamic school where one of the victims once taught, and did so while children were present; intimidated the staff for supposedly covering up an honour killing; filmed outside the school; and then posted the video on its website. Parents are now afraid that a follower of this website, who believes this false narrative of an honour killing cover-up, could end up attacking this school and their children, yet everyone appears to be helpless in stopping this type of fake news, which can have very real consequences.
Racist and bigoted thoughts cannot be legislated, but actions can be. We believe that all Canadians, in particular community leaders and our elected leaders, have a moral duty to stem the rise of hate in Canada, which is clearly having a really negative impact on the lives of minority Canadians. Therefore we propose six concrete steps that the government and our elected leaders can take to address the rise of hate in Canada.
First, to further protect religious property, consider expanding subsection 430(4.1) of the Criminal Code to include religious schools, and also remove the specific element to make the offence a general offence. A specific intent imposes an additional burden on the prosecutor to prove, and gives the perpetrator one more defence.
Second, consider expanding section 319 to characterize all physical attacks against religious symbols in public places, including those worn by individuals, such as the hijab, turban, kippah, and cross, as public incitement of hatred or wilful promotion of hatred.
Third, increase funding for law enforcement and security agencies to investigate hate speech on the Internet, to enforce existing laws, and to gather intelligence on, investigate, and prosecute radical individuals and groups who believe in terrorizing Canadian minorities through criminal acts with the same vigour and allocation of resources as has been done so far against individuals and groups who believe in terrorizing Canadians indiscriminately through criminal acts.
Fourth, consider creating safe zones outside all schools when children are present so that protestors are required to give safe, intimidation-free passage to children to and from school.
Fifth, model the promotion of understanding and diversity—not necessarily agreement—in all federal agencies and the public service by mandating, on a regular basis, sessions featuring interaction with members of diverse and minority groups for all management-level and front-line employees.
Sixth, run regular national public awareness campaigns to instill a sense of national pride in Canadian diversity and to highlight the positive contributions of Canadians of all types.
I'm sure we can all agree that our country is a great blessing that we want to continue to build and improve. For that, we must start with us as individuals, and then as communities, and as a nation.
May God keep our country and its citizens safe. May God make it safer and more welcoming for all.