TORONTO – Canada has long prided itself on being a multicultural nation that values inclusion, opening its borders to refugees and immigrants, no matter their ethnicity or religion.
But has U.S. President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border and months of pre-election anti-immigrant rhetoric led to a rise in racial intolerance in this country?
Or has such discrimination been bubbling below the surface within some segments of Canadian society, and Trump’s world view and policies have merely validated such sentiments, granting like-minded people tacit permission to voice racist comments and perform hateful acts, where they might not have before?
“I think absolutely the boundaries are porous, the borders are porous, so anything that happens in the U.S. obviously affects us,” said sociologist Barbara Perry, a global hate crime expert at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont.
“We get the same Twitter feeds, we hear the same sound bites on television and radio and in the print media as well. Clearly the messages are crossing the border.”
And those messages do seem to be resonating with some Canadians, said Perry, pointing to a flurry of anti-Muslim postings on social media that followed last month’s Quebec City mosque shooting.
“I’m not a big user of social media, but even someone like me who’s at arm’s length can see the freedom people are feeling to express some pretty vicious and violent sentiments,” she said, noting that the ability to remain anonymous makes it easier to voice “politically incorrect” opinions.
“You might not say something out loud or you might not sign your name to something … (being) expressed online, but if nobody can see your face because you’ve got a picture of a cute little kitty cat as your avatar, then you don’t suffer repercussions, you don’t think anyone’s going to call you out in the same way they would in a more public and face-to-face venue.”
Still, it’s important to recognize that Canada is hardly innocent when it comes to discriminatory attitudes and policies, said Rima Wilkes, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, pointing to the maltreatment of indigenous people, the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the refusal to accept Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
More recently, former prime minister Stephen Harper spoke of Islamicism being the greatest threat to Canada and said during the 2015 election campaign he would consider banning the niqab for public servants. Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch is running on a platform of screening would-be immigrants at the border for “Canadian values.”
“It’s not like Trump just appeared out of thin air and now people have permission (to discriminate). I think this has been simmering for years,” Wilkes said from Vancouver.
“It would be nice if we could try to not be like that. I think we have a leader (Justin Trudeau) right now who is really trying to not be like that.
“But that mosque shooting shows that we are not immune.”
Perry believes many Canadians are in denial about how commonly racially motivated acts occur in this country — she frequently hears from her students about how they or their families have been targeted — and that polls over the last five to 10 years suggest a sizable proportion of the population is resistant to immigration and in particular to newcomers from Muslim countries.
“It’s more like we’re finally paying attention to it and acknowledging that it happens,” she said of discrimination, which may be more overt in the last few months.
“So I don’t know that it was necessarily latent before. I think what we’re seeing is maybe more extreme versions have sort of burst out of the shadows.”
On the flip side, the Trump administration’s travel ban and the Quebec City mosque massacre seem to have had a unifying effect among those who renounce racial intolerance, giving rise to rallies and vigils across the country to demonstrate support for Canadians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Amanda Hohmann, national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, said that anti-Semitic incidents across the country in the last few months appear to be down, compared to the same period a year ago.
“I think people are paying attention now where they weren’t maybe paying attention before because of what’s going on in this political climate,” said Hohmann, who is based in Toronto. “It’s part of a national discussion right now, this idea of discrimination against minorities.”
Even so, there have been several reports over the last few weeks of swastikas drawn in the snow in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto.
“Those are a completely new phenomenon. We haven’t really seen that before,” said Hohmann. “I think the world right now is really polarized. So the people who are promoting this kind of hate, I think they’ve kind of got their backs up.
“It’s almost like ‘I’m going to make my voice louder than your voice.'”
Still, Hohmann is heartened by the number of counter-vandalism and counter-discrimination acts also being reported.
“So where people write a swastika, somebody colours over it with a heart. I’ve never seen that to the degree that we’re seeing it now.”