OTTAWA – The messages being sent by the federal government and the Conservative party that form it may be having a negative impact on the country’s Muslim community, a senior Conservative senator acknowledged Monday.
While Sen. Marjory LeBreton said she feels the government is “getting a bad rap” on the issue thanks in part to the media, she told a luncheon crowd she regrets the fact some Muslims are saying they feel unwelcome in Canada.
In recent months, the prime minister has explicitly linked mosques to terrorism and the party has circulated fundraising pitches uses menacing images of Muslim men.
There has also been ongoing controversy over the government’s decision to ban full-face coverings during citizenship ceremonies, as well as a Quebec judge who recently told a Muslim woman she’d have to remove her head covering in order to testify.
Many Muslims have the sense they don’t belong, patent agent Sheema Khan told LeBreton during a luncheon in Ottawa celebrating the political achievements of women.
Khan said her daughters no longer aspire to such achievements, thanks to the government’s approach to Muslims.
“As Muslim Canadians, we are part of this society but we feel that the messaging that is coming out is making us feel a little bit excluded, somewhat under suspicion,” Khan said during a question-and-answer session at the event.
“I have two daughters; I want them to believe that they can be prime minister one day, but they don’t feel they can. They feel they have no voice in politics because they see a political framework where their religion is suspect, where their presence is not perhaps fully welcomed.”
LeBreton said she has many Muslim friends and knows they are just as concerned about radicalization within their communities as non-Muslims, echoing comments made by Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney over the weekend about how integral Muslims have been in working with security officials to thwart potential attacks.
“They have every right to be completely respected like all other Canadians,” LeBreton said of the community — and the fact they feel otherwise is unfortunate.
“I very much regret that that is a view and we’ve got to work very hard to dispel that because it happens not to be true,” she said.
Khan is a longtime activist and the author of a book of essays on being a Muslim Canadian woman. She said afterwards she was somewhat mollified by LeBreton’s response.
“They definitely have to work hard because they have alienated so many of us.”
Some of the current tension between the government and the broader Muslim community can be traced back to the silence from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the wake of the two October attacks linked to radical Islam.
Unlike in the U.S., where outreach to Muslim communities is often the first step by government officials in the wake of terrorist attacks, the Conservative government offered no such support.
In December, Harper gave a speech to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in which he applauded that specific community’s efforts to stand against terrorism. The Ahmadi community comprises only a small fraction of the more than one million Muslims in Canada.
“We have nothing against the minorities. Meet them, but meet us also,” said Nazira Naz Tareen, the founder of the Ottawa Muslim Women’s Organization, who was among those who crowded around Khan after the event.
Other well-wishers included Sophie Gregoire, the wife of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and LeBreton, who came to shake her hand.
“I appreciated her courage in standing up and her honesty because that’s what women have to do in politics,” she said.
Monday’s event was put on by the non-partisan Famous Five organization, which works to get more women involved in politics. The theme of the event was honouring the women in charge of the upcoming election campaign teams for the three main federal political parties: Jenni Byrne for the Conservatives, Anne McGrath for the NDP and Katie Telford for the Liberals.
Byrne did not attend, having told organizers months ago that she had a scheduling conflict.