The man who spat at her didn’t know her. He didn’t know her name or the fact that it meant ‘beautiful’ in Urdu. He didn’t know that she was a talented artist and a brilliant student. He didn’t know about all her hard work raising funds for cancer research or the long hours she spent increasing environmental awareness in our school. He knew nothing of this. All he knew was that she was wearing a hijab and her choice to do so made her a target for his hatred.
Days after the 9/11 attacks, an American-Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was killed by someone who told friends he was going out “to shoot some towel heads”. Beyond the fact of the killer’s ignorance of the difference between Sikhism and Islam is the fact that the killer’s religion was not cited as a reason for his attack.
In these hours after the attacks in Paris, I wait with bated breath for the hate attacks to begin, as I know they will. I tense as I scroll through headlines, hoping I don’t see anything like “Pregnant Muslim woman attacked by Montreal teens”. I hope that instead I see headlines like “Train passenger defends Muslim woman against hateful rant”. I hope I see more of those.
But history shows my hope may be in vain. There have been too many times in our Canadian history, in battles between hate and compassion, when hate won.
It won when the Komagatu Maru, carrying British citizens of the Sikh faith, was turned away in Vancouver in 1914. It won when the St. Louis, carrying Jewish people fleeing Nazi occupied Europe, was denied entry into Halifax in 1938. It won when Japanese Canadians were interned after the Pearl Harbour attack despite the fact that the RCMP said that they posed no threat to Canada in 1942.
Will hate win again now in the aftermath of the horror of the attacks on Paris?
Online comments on Prime Minister Trudeau’s response to the attacks leads me to believe that it may. The commenters say that we should stop the immigration of Syrian refugees. They claim that the refugees are just terrorists in disguise. I wonder if the commenters have met a refugee?
There are 60 million refugees waiting in thousands of camps all around the world today. People who were engineers, doctors, teachers, students, farmers, shopkeepers before they were refugees. People who were going about their lives, working, studying, raising children, when war or famine made that daily life impossible.
The Syrian refugees, like millions of others, fled their homes after a multitude of attacks like the one in Paris. A multitude of attacks that did not get wall-to-wall media coverage here.
As I write this, the furnace has just clicked on, the kettle is whistling and I’ll soon be enjoying a nice cup of tea while I read the newspaper in peace and quiet. But my enjoyment of this ordinary pleasure will be tinged with anxiety about how my fellow Canadians will respond to hatred’s rally call.
In the recent federal election, the Harper Conservatives used a niqab to fan the flames of hatred, but Canadians overwhelming rejected that attempt to divide citizens from each other. Does that rejection still hold today?
I worry about my students, the ones who wear the hijab, who wear a turban, who are visibly different to a racist view of what a Canadian looks like.
I wonder what my students think about our Social Studies lessons on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in Canada. I wonder if they have developed some cynicism about all the claims made about who and what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects.
Canada’s 2015 election was historic for many reasons other than its length. At the end of it, Canada had a cabinet that “looked like Canada” in all its diversity. Is it too much to hope that we can continue to see that what it means to be Canadian includes a diversity of colours and creeds?
My student shrugged at the end of telling me the story of that hate-filled attack on her. She seemed resigned to its reality. I wish more than anything else in the world that she didn’t have to be.