Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you to the committee for giving us this opportunity to present in regard to the study on systemic racism and religious discrimination. We also appreciate the presence of the opposition and members, and their dedication to the subject of discrimination, and Islamophobia specifically.
My name is Aurangzeb Qureshi, as the chair mentioned. I'm the VP for public policy and communications of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, and with me is Faisal Khan Suri, president. We hope our recommendations will help contribute towards reducing and eliminating racism and discrimination in Canada, which also includes Islamophobia.
Just to give you a bit of history on the organization, AMPAC was formed in late 2014, after a string of Islamophobic attacks in Alberta. As such, the organization's mandate is to protect the individual and collective rights of Muslims in a variety of different political and legal settings in Alberta.
We are one of the leading advocates for religious and cultural accommodation in Alberta. The organization actively participates in policy and legal discussions on the treatment of religious and cultural minorities in the province.
AMPAC is also seen as an expert on anti-discrimination and anti-racism efforts in Alberta, not just for Muslims but for all religious minorities. AMPAC has also advocated on policies that provide greater recognition for the rights of minority communities.
As for some highlights in terms of what we've done, we continue to consult with the federal and provincial governments on a variety of legislation concerning the rights, liberties, and recognition of Muslims in Alberta, including in relation to national security and hate crime legislation. We are working on an Andalusian curriculum for Alberta's public education system to ensure that the history of positive interaction between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain is recognized.
We operate an Islamophobia help hotline for the public to report incidents of vandalism and discrimination related to Islamophobia in Alberta. We commentate and speak out against hate crimes of other forms of discrimination in Alberta, including frequently providing expert opinions, publishing op-eds, and arguing for enhanced religious accommodation and acceptance. We host policy forums and workshops with political representatives and members of the public on issues of accommodation of religious and cultural minorities. We collaborate with other faith and cultural communities to foster a broad tolerance of minority accommodation and diversity in Alberta. Last but not least, we organize and facilitate vigils and solidarity events honouring the victims of terrorist attacks in Quebec City and Edmonton.
Moving on to the recommendations, I'm going to kind of build up and come to the recommendation at the end for each of these. There are four recommendations in all. I would like to highlight the AMPAC Islamophobia help hotline that was launched in April 2016, which I alluded to earlier. The hotline was introduced as a tool for the Muslim community and to monitor Islamophobic incidents across Alberta. This was not being done before.
Over the last year, the hotline has received over 400 calls, and we have found that Islamophobic incidents in the province follow a common theme. The targets are either newcomers to Canada who are perceived as Muslim, or women who wear the Islamic head scarf or the hijab. This is evidence that Islamophobia is real. It's not just a Muslim issue; it's an Alberta issue, and it's a Canadian issue.
We understand that paragraph 2(b) of the Charter of the Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Those wanting to criticize Islam are free to do so. Such criticism of any faith or ideology is warranted under Canadian law. We are also aware however that such free speech also comes within reasonable limits. There are three specific sections of the Criminal Code dealing with behaviour that some people refer to as hate crimes. Section 318, on hate propaganda, refers specifically to advocating for genocide; section 319, on the public incitement of hatred, refers to stirring up hatred in a public place; and subsection 430(4.1), on mischief relating to religious property, specifically refers to mischief at churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.
Given the very specific nature of these offences, we have found that it is extremely difficult to charge an individual with a hate crime, and it demands a threshold that is unrealistic. For example, section 319 specifically requires the consent of the Attorney General in order to lay charges, a high bar and something that very few other sections require.
Late last year, in Edmonton, a man pulled a noose from his coat, pointed to two Muslim women wearing the hijab, and told them, “This is for you.” He then proceeded to sing the Canadian national anthem. No charges were laid. Incidents like these create a terrible precedent that essentially provides cover and licence. It tells others that they can engage in these types of practices and discriminatory acts.
AMPAC recommends clarifying the ambiguous nature of section 319 and amending section 318 of Canada's Criminal Code so that a hate incident can be charged as a crime without having to specifically meet such an unrealistic threshold of genocide. The section on mischief should also go beyond religious property and include the utterance of violent, racist threats to be a prosecutable offence. This is in light of the latest Statistics Canada report that indicates police-reported hate crimes had increased 39% in Alberta in 2015, the largest spike among provinces in Canada.
This brings me to recommendation number two. AMPAC also believes that there must be recognition that Islamophobia is a systemic problem, propagated through media and culture, and not a political issue, and that to address it, social change needs to occur at a grassroots educational level. As a result, AMPAC works closely with all three levels of government to ensure that programs are put in place that emphasize the Canadian values of pluralism, inclusion, and acceptance. We are continuously working with the City of Edmonton and Alberta municipalities to provide educational programs and anti-racism initiatives, and also supporting the Alberta provincial government in its efforts to eliminate racism through its engaging Albertans about racism initiative.
AMPAC recommends that the government build the educational capacity and structures necessary to address systemic discrimination on an ongoing basis. This includes supporting the creation of local programs that receive federal funding that focus on getting to know Muslims as normal, everyday people with the same hopes, desires, and aspirations as anyone else. One example of this is—as I alluded to earlier—the Andalusian curriculum that we're working on that shows that Muslims, Jews, and Christians have lived in peace and continue to live in peace and tolerance. The next recommendation as part of this is the creation of a federal board working to reduce and eventually eliminate Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism with local representation from various provinces at a grassroots level.
AMPAC also has excellent relationships with law enforcement across the province. We have received tremendous support from local police and see them as equal partners in AMPAC's success. We continue to have frank discussions with law enforcement about security issues and the rise of far-right organizations such as The Three Percenters, Worldwide Coalition against Islam, and the Soldiers of Odin, all of which have a presence in Alberta.
At every step, law enforcement has been on our side, but there are certain developments where we feel that may not be the case sometimes. This case is still in the courts, but it raises some red flags. A statement of claim against CSIS lays out the experiences of employees who, after enduring many years of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, and sexual orientation, have finally made their claims public. Three Muslim intelligence officers, known as Bahira, Cemal, and Emran for the purposes of anonymity, noted that anti-Islamic comments and views were common in the workplace. Most notably, the claim states that there was a belief that “all Muslims are suspect, and while they appear to blend in, they could strike at any time”. The statement also alleges similar discriminatory behaviour against a gay and black employee by both staff and management.
AMPAC recommends that the committee be proactive and collaborate with the ministry of public safety and ensure that prospective CSIS and RCMP officers are provided with sensitivity training on diversity inclusion. If we truly want to address and eliminate systemic racism, it has to be addressed in the corridors of power. CSIS is one of those corridors that operates in relative obscurity.
Next is recommendation number four. Canada is a land that has historically accepted people from many backgrounds and religions, and continues to do so. Such is also true of the thousands of Syrian refugees who have crossed our borders over the past couple of years. As we already know, many of these refugees are coming to Canada from war-torn countries that have a lasting effect on their mental health. These same children will attend school—