Source: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

2022 Islamophobia in Review: Canada

Published on 29 Dec 2022

Islamophobia in Canada was a combination of localized incidents of hate crimes and government policy that discriminated against Muslims, especially Muslim women who were left to choose between their faith and their jobs.

Bill 21

The debate over Bill 21 (Act Respecting the Laicity of the State) continued in the province of Quebec. Last year the country’s top court upheld most of the bill, which “bars civil servants in positions of ‘authority’ from wearing religious symbols at work.” Under the policy, judges, police officers, teachers and public servants are banned from “wearing symbols such as the kippah, turban, or hijab while at work.” When drafting the bill, Quebec’s government tactically “preemptively invoked the constitutional notwithstanding clause when drafting the legislation.” This meant that it would be significantly more difficult to bring challenges against the policy in court.

Quebec’s government has defended Bill 21, maintaining that the display of religious symbols, in this case primarily hijab, are at odds with the region’s secular foundations. In response to this, Canadian journalist J.J. McCullough wrote that “defending a religious headgear ban on the grounds French Quebeckers find headscarves and turbans obnoxious is not the sort of threadbare argument anyone should be implying meets what should be an extraordinarily high standard for rights-defying legislation.” In an interview earlier this year, the country’s special envoy on combating antisemitism and former justice minister, Irwin Cotler, described Bill 21 as discriminatory, stating it “authorizes interference by the state in religion.”

In response to the law, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) with the support of other groups such as the World Sikh Organization of Canada, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, initiated a lawsuit against the bill. This year, a number of councilors and members of government in other parts of the country put forward a motion to send $100,000 to cover the legal funds in the lawsuit. 

Bill 21 has had significant impacts primarily on the lives of Muslim women in Quebec. In August, the Association for Canadian Studies released a survey of Quebecers, which found that “although all three religious minority groups surveyed said they’ve experienced negative impacts due to Bill 21, the effects are being most acutely felt by Muslims and, in particular, Muslim women.” 78 percent of Muslim women surveyed said “their feeling of being accepted as a full-fledged member of Quebec society had worsened over the last three years.” Additionally, 53 percent said they’d heard “prejudicial remarks about Muslims from family, friends or colleagues.” The survey also found that 57 percent of Muslim women said they’d been treated unfairly by a person in a position of authority. Some of the women talked about incidences of intimidation and harassment they encountered in public, including disparaging comments. Perhaps one of the most disturbing revelations was that two-thirds of the women surveyed “said they’d been a victim of and/or a witness to a hate crime,” with 73 percent saying their feeling of being safe in public had worsened. Since its passing, Bill 21 has resulted in the stigmatization and marginalization of Muslim women. It has singled them out, framing their clothing as at odds with the region’s secular values, and causing them to feel unsafe in public given the increasing hate crimes against them. 

In November, ten appeals against the law were heard by the Quebec Court of Appeals. Lawyers on behalf of those claiming that Bill 21 is discriminatory argued that the policy was targeting one group in particular: Muslim women who wear the hijab. A lawyer representing the English Montreal School Board stated that “eight individuals had lost their jobs or been denied employment as a result of Bill 21. All were Muslim women.” The lawyer also stated that other than Muslim women, there was no other examples of individuals across the province losing their job as a result of Bill 21, demonstrating the very clear anti-Muslim impact of the bill. The legal battle over Bill 21 continues and the policy remains in place.

Institutional Islamophobia

2022 also provided examples of institutional Islamophobia, namely how anti-Muslim policies in the corporate sector, such as financial institutions, can negatively impact the growth and success of Muslim-led organizations. This year, the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC), Canada’s largest grassroots Muslim organization, launched a legal challenge against the Canada Revenue Agency. The government agency responsible for tax collection and oversight began an audit of the charity back in 2015. As the audit continues, MAC claims that the investigation is tainted with Islamophobia, and that a possible revocation of the organization’s charitable status would have severe impacts on the community, as the organization provides services to more than “150,000 Canadians who attend schools, mosques and community centers in its network.” The lawyer representing MAC stated that the CRA has “leveled unsubstantiated allegations against the charity which include ‘innuendo’ about improper foreign ties and questions about the charitable benefits of its youth programs.” The organization believes that anti-Muslim bias is to blame for the CRA’s allegations against it

In a 2021 report, University of Toronto’s Institute of Islamic Studies found that there is basis to MAC’s concern. In their study, researchers concluded that when the government’s “anti-terrorism financing and anti-radicalization policies are…operationalized by the CRA’s Charities Directorate and the Review and Analysis Division (RAD), they create the conditions for potential structural bias against Muslim-led charities.” The report found that the government’s “risk-based assessment” model associates 80 percent of all terrorist financing risk with identifiably Muslim organizations. In 2021, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group also published a report analyzing institutional bias and structural discrimination when it comes to government policy regarding finances, specially noting that the Review and Analysis Division (RAD), a division of the CRA, is “targeting Muslim charities for audits, based on prejudiced and unsupported allegations of a risk of terrorist financing.” The study found that “although Muslim charities represented 0.47% of registered charities in 2015, from 2008-2015, 75% of all charities revoked by RAD were Muslim charities.”

An August piece by journalist Steven Zhou investigated how financial guidelines followed by banks regarding risk assessments were disproportionately impacting Muslim organizations and their ability to carry out their missions. He called it a “systemic problem.” Zhou found that “Mosques, schools, community centers, food banks, and humanitarian groups operating as charities that issue tax receipts are being embargoed by major banks and online financial services.” He spoke with five different Muslim-led charitable organizations, all of whom had been dropped by their bank and online donations processor after they had exceeded the financial service’s “risk appetite.” The individuals at the organizations say that media coverage of the organization’s, which often insinuates a “terrorist” or “extremist” connection, scares off financial providers who want to avoid risk. An important thing that Zhou pointed out was that banks and financial services “refuse to disclose exactly why they stopped serving their Muslim clients.” With these investigations and audits against Muslim-led charity organizations, Muslim community leaders have warned that such heavy-handed measures are disruptive and confrontational. Charity leaders have stated that suspensions wielded against them by the CRA lack fairness and transparency, and “allegations of terrorism” carry a discriminatory tone as they are considered “‘guilty until proven innocent’ because of the religion of the people or the countries they serve.”

Quebec wasn’t the only province to make the news this year. In Alberta, the region’s chief of the Human Rights Commission made headlines after previous Islamophobia comments resurfaced, with many calling for him to resign as they questioned his ability to carry out his mandate. In September it was revealed the Justice Minister Tyler Shandro as well as the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and 27 other community associations called on lawyer Collin May to resign from his position. They all pointed to May’s previous statements found in his 2009 journal review of a book, in which he said that Islam was “not a peaceful religion misused by radicals” and instead was “one of the most militaristic religions known to man”. The NCCM noted that they had reached out to May multiple times to meet and speak with the community and address their concerns, but May failed to do so, leading members of the community to believe that he was unfit for his position. While May resisted the calls for resignation, insisting that he did nothing wrong, in September the Commission stated that May’s term had ended and he had been replaced by a new acting chief.  

Anti-Muslim hate crimes

In the past decade, Canadian Muslims have found themselves in an increasingly dangerous environment as the number of hate crimes and attacks against the community has drastically increased. In 2021, the NCCM reported that in the past five years, “more Muslims have been killed in targeted hate attacks in Canada than any other G-7 country – because of Islamophobia.” In 2022, attacks against Muslims, especially Black Muslim women, remained a threat.

According to a report by the Organization for the Prevention of Violence, “seven Black Muslim women were targeted, threatened or attacked in Edmonton between 2020 and 2022.” One of these incidents took place on New Year’s Day when a 34-year-old man attacked a Black woman in front of her three children. He reportedlypunched and spit on the vehicle while yelling violent threats at the woman. The man at one point left the area but he returned with a shovel and continued his attack.” The prevalence of these attacks has left Muslim women feeling unsafe going out in public or using public transit.

In January, Islamic Relief Canada released a report on the impact of these hate crimes on the community. Researchers spoke with Muslims about their experiences and concluded that consequences of anti-Muslim racism include “emotional and mental trauma, stress in personal and professional relationships, and even long-term physical injury.” Negative experiences led to some individuals making massive changes in their lives such as switching schools, and in one case resulted in serious conversations about leaving Canada. The study revealed how Islamophobia is normalized in society as individuals do not feel safe nor welcomed simply because of their beliefs. In April, the government agency, Statistics Canada found that “hate crimes against Muslim communities across Canada increased by 71 percent in 2021.” Many also noted that even with this drastic rise, it didn’t capture the full extent of Islamophobia in the country, as many  hate crimes go unreported.

2022 also marked the one year anniversary of the deadly anti-Muslim attack in London, Ontario, when a man rammed his truck into a Muslim family who were out on a walk, killing four members. Law enforcement ruled that the attack was motivated by Islamophobia. In the year since, there have been proposals for memorials to honor the family and to bring attention to the deadly consequences of anti-Muslim bigotry.

There were a number of hate-motivated attacks against mosques in Canada in 2022. In March, a man walked into a mosque in Mississauga and attacked the Muslim worshippers with bear spray while wielding a hatchet. Law enforcement stated they believed it was a “hate-motivated incident.” Such a violation of the safety and security of a religious space has left many congregants fearful, and the mosque has taken steps to protect its community. In the weeks following the attacks, members described having “nightmares, alongside feelings of fear and violation.” In a separate incident in October in Thornhill, Ontario, a male suspect “spray painted three areas of the mosque with derogatory, anti-Iranian language, written in Farsi.” This occurred during the protests against the mandatory hijab and for women’s rights in Iran and community leaders in Canada believed that “false connections” had been drawn between the mosque and the leaders of Iran. There had been a sustained campaign by anti-muslim voices to falsely portray the mosque “as a terrorist entity, an anti-woman organization or an agent of the government of Iran.” The incident exemplified how events abroad can have harmful impacts on Muslims at home. NCCM also stated that the “mosque was subjected to numerous threats, with one individual posting that it is “mandatory to bomb the mosque.’” In November, Nayereh Akbarzadeh, a member of the mosque, called on the government to make tangible efforts to protect Muslims and stop the rising Islamophobia, such as the need to reform the process to apply for security funding as the current system is failing.

In January on the fifth anniversary of the Quebec Mosque shooting, the government announced that it would appoint a special representative to tackle Islamophobia. Despite this promise, many still ask if the government and authorities are taking the problem seriously, given the yearly increase in hate crimes and attacks.