Vigil in Montreal last night. Photographs by Jonathan Sa'adah.
The news of Sunday's attack on the mosque in Quebec City, and the deaths of six people, hit us very hard. Coming on top of Trump's travel ban, last weekend, I had to wonder if the timing was coincidental, or if the young perpetrator had been pushed over some personal edge into action by the anti-Muslim rhetoric from a U.S. administration. His political identity, however, had been in place for some time; he was a sympathizer of Marine lePen, of the French far-right, and had expressed anti-Muslim, anti-women sentiments on the web.
There has been a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim element in Quebec for a long time. Here in the larger and very diverse city of Montreal, some tend to cast blame on Quebec City and the rural areas of the province, which tend to be more mono-chromatically French-Canadian, and where separatist sentiment maintains a stronger foothold. In Montreal, significant numbers of non-white people run for office and are elected from their districts; this is another way in which change is slowly happening. Another is that the fluently-bilingual younger generations seem to have less interest in division of any kind, and I find it heartening to know and talk to these progressive, globally-concerned young people, for whom travel -- even on a shoestring -- is a priority. But plenty of racism occurs here as well.
In spite of liberal immigration policies, nearly every one of my immigrant friends has faced discrimination and considerable difficulty when trying to settle in Montreal, too, particularly when trying to find employment, but also in more subtle and insidious ways. Racism against the indigenous population is not merely an historical national disgrace, but a severe ongoing problem. However, perhaps because violent crime and incidents of mass murder are much less common here than in the U.S., we have failed to extrapolate from racist attacks on women with headscarves, or vandalism at mosques, that sooner or later something like the Quebec City attack might happen.
Hate crime has risen in Canada and across the province of Quebec; an article in the Montreal Gazette from November 2016 titled "The Trump effect and the normalization of hate in Quebec" contains analysis and statistics, as well as this prediction, so uncomfortable to read in hindsight:
A study of the terrorism and extremism incident database... calculated that five people had been killed in 49 white supremacist incidents in Canada between 2001 and 2015, at least seven of them in Quebec.
“One officer told us ‘we know they’re here but until something happens we won’t do anything,’ ” Perry said. “They’re waiting for someone to be hurt or a mosque to be burned down.”
Daniel Gallant, a former white supremacist who spent ten years with Neo-Nazi groups in Alberta, is now getting his law degree and dedicating his life to anti-radicalization efforts. He says his job "just got a lot harder" with the election of Donald Trump.
Gallant...says another factor that may explain the increase in hate crimes is how “normal” the ideology has become. It was normal for him, growing up in Alberta. There is still Canadian legislation in force — like the Indian Act, for example — that is reflective of white supremacist ideology, he says.
The Soldiers of Odin, for example — founded in Finland with the express motive of creating fear in the Muslim community — have set up at least 12 new chapters in Western Canada in the last eight months, Gallant said. The Quebec chapter, les Soldats d’Odin, were among several anti-immigrant groups who marched in Quebec City last month.
“They are garnering huge public support by watering down the message and casting a wide net to allow as many people as possible into the organization.”
The study noted that white supremacist groups had been emboldened by an "enabling climate" such as the "divisive discourse of the Charter of Values in Quebec," proposed by the Parti Quebecois and defeated in the last election, and nationally with some of the policies of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The study's authors conclude:
“In a word, hate is increasingly 'mainstream,' and thus increasingly legitimate. In part, this has been accomplished by toning down the rhetoric, and doing away with the white robes and brown shirts. But it has also been accomplished by forging links with the ultimate authority: the state.”
I was sorry to see a blaming mindset at work on Sunday, when the news media released the names of two suspects, one of which was a Muslim name, and speculated -- against all common sense, but of course picked up by Fox News -- that there might be a link to Islamic terrorism. The second suspect was released after a night in jail and identified instead as a witness. Upon entering the mosque and discovering dead and wounded victims, he had run when he mistook an armed police officer for the shooter. Yesterday it became clear that the actual terrorist was neither Muslim nor Middle Eastern, but a home-grown white-supremacist armed with an assault rifle, completely illegal here. This, not Muslim fundamentalism, is the true face of terror in North America, and it's high time we admitted it.
Today, the great majority of the people in this province are appalled, grieving, and doing some necessary soul searching about racism and the rise of the far-right in Canadian society and in Quebec specifically. The photographs in this post are from a vigil in Montreal last night, attended by thousands of people who came out in the freezing cold to stand together in solidarity and love.
Personally, I am reeling from the pile-up of recent events. It's been difficult to sleep, and difficult to ignore the news and my own thoughts enough to work. However, I'm trying to take my own advice to heart; on Sunday I spent the day singing, and yesterday afternoon I managed to do some research and writing, and I've continued that today; soon I'll go off to the pool and swim my laps.
What we're witnessing, however, is unprecedented in North American democracy. The feeling is that we've embarked on a voyage through unknown waters, where Sirens and Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis lie in wait, and only our collective wits, determination, and love can save us.