Montreal vigil Benoit Charette

The audacity of accusing the Montreal vigil crowd of being haters

Tone policing by the usual suspects ensued after a Quebec minister was booed at Friday’s vigil for the London attack victims.

During last week’s Montreal vigil organized to honour the lives of the Afzaal family, mowed down in London, Ontario by a terrorist, Quebec’s minister responsible for the fight against racism, Benoit Charette, was booed for several minutes when he spoke. 

Benoit Charette was, of course, booed not because of who he is personally as a human being or what he has individually done or failed to do with regards to the Muslim community, but because of who he was representing while in attendance: a government that continues to stubbornly deny systemic racism exists despite all evidence to the contrary, a government that refuses to acknowledge Islamophobia and a government that pushed through legislation that has put even more of a target on the backs of Muslims.

While I commend the minister for wanting to be there, I think he probably knew he was walking into unfriendly territory. Three generations of an entire family had just been murdered in cold blood and one young boy left all alone in this world solely because they were Muslim. Understandably, nerves were raw and emotions were running high, so one can forgive the community for being a little uncharitable with politicians bearing empty gestures, even if Minister Charette was there with good intentions.

Bill 21 should be discussed

While in power, the CAQ has in no way, shape or form contributed to helping reduce intolerance and mistrust of Muslims. On the contrary, it has introduced legislation that has forced members of the Muslim community to spend an inordinate amount of time having to defend themselves and their choices, in turn amplifying the perception of religious minorities as “others,” stubbornly getting in the way of homogeneity. This is hardly helpful for social cohesion. 

Quebec’s Superior judge Marc-André Blanchard may have had no choice but to uphold Bill 21 in the latest legal challenge, due to the notwithstanding clause, but he did not hold back in concluding that it has “serious and negative” impacts on people who wear religious symbols, “dehumanizes those who are targeted” and “negatively impacts Muslim women first and foremost.” 

No, there is no direct causal link between Quebec’s Bill 21 and the deadly terrorism in London. But it is also perfectly normal that the legislation will be looked at and scrutinized within the larger context of a national debate currently taking place on what and who is to blame for creeping Islamophobia in Canada and its consequences for the Muslim community. Quebec, too, is part of Canada. And Canada has an Islamophobia problem. 

The booing wasn’t limited to Quebec 

Montreal vigil booing Quebec minister Benoit Charette
Benoit Charette and François Legault (The audacity of accusing the Montreal vigil crowd of being haters)

The Quebecor columnists and other critics trying to convince you that the booing directed at Benoit Charette was “anti-Quebec hate” (as if the people booing are not Quebecers, too) will conveniently omit telling you that the booing was not limited to Quebec. Over in Ontario, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole was booed because his party had voted against a 2017 motion on systemic racism and religious discrimination. O’Toole was one of 91 MPs who voted against the motion to condemn Islamophobia. Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford was also booed. You cannot tweet out “Hate and Islamophobia have NO place in Ontario” after the attack, while simultaneously blocking a motion by Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter calling on the legislature to unanimously condemn Islamophobia. If you talk out of both sides of your mouth, people are going to notice and call you out on it. No one has accused these protesters as being motivated by “anti-Ontario hate.”

Politicians being booed for contradictory, hypocritical or disappointing statements or behaviour is nothing new. Stephen Harper was booed in absentia years ago after he chose not to attend a women’s issues discussion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was booed and heckled by protesters while trying to explain how he was defending the environment while approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Former U.S. president Donald Trump was booed while visiting Former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s casket. Why would those in attendance want to see a man who had done nothing to advance women’s rights attend the funeral of a woman who spent her life fighting for them? People are not dumb. They notice what offends their sensibilities and the often gaping chasm between words and action. 

Symbolism without action falls short

Along the same lines, why would politicians who represent governments who deny Islamophobia attend a vigil set up to mourn the victims caused by precisely what they are denying exists and expect an enthusiastic hero’s welcome? Symbolic gestures of commiseration ring hollow to a crowd grieving innocent victims and worried about the safety of their loved ones, a crowd feeling marginalized and ignored, a re-traumatized community that only a few years ago was mourning six Muslims shot to death and many more injured at the Quebec City Mosque attack. Booing and jeering politicians who are saying one thing while doing another is normal, cathartic and a form of free speech. And what that free speech is saying is, “We don’t believe you.”

It’s true that English Canada can often be quick at the draw to attack Quebec and to misconstrue what happens in this province as motivated by racism and intolerance. It’s equally true that Quebec politicians and pundits often sidestep or derail legitimate criticism or needed debates by labeling it “Quebec bashing.” The worst thing we can do is ignore legitimate conversations on the noxious effects of Bill 21 just because some people are having them in bad faith or using it as a pretext to malign Quebec.

Bill 21’s defenders are free to defend the legislation, but they also need to acknowledge certain irrefutable facts. Experts’ testimonies at the trial concluded the legislation has resulted in “increased prejudice toward these social groups and more negative outcomes for individuals belonging to them.” A poll conducted by Leger Marketing showed a direct link between support for Bill 21 and anti-Muslim sentiment. “Negative feelings about Islam, were, in fact, shown to be the main motivation behind this support.” A spike in hate-related activities has been reported to human rights groups since Bill 21 came into effect. There can be no denying this bill has negatively affected their lives. 

State-enacted legislation that deliberately or indirectly targets and marginalizes religious minorities may not in itself be liable for hate crimes, but it has the potential to increase intolerance. Author and social psychologist Dr. Jaiya John writes, “You are not responsible for who drinks from your fountain, how much they drink, or what they do with the drinking. But you are preciously responsible for what you pour.” Those targeted have a right to want to identify the sources of hate and radicalization and question everything and anything that could incite people to act on such hate. These are all legitimate reasons, devoid of any Quebec bashing, that justify why the legislation is under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of a hate-filled terrorist attack. 

Members of Canada’s Muslim community are scared and grieving right now. An innocent family was murdered in cold blood because of hate and intolerance. They’re not interested in anyone’s tone policing. They want to see reassurances that those in charge will not only acknowledge that we have a problem, but actively do everything they can to combat it. And until they see evidence of that, they’re not going to be interested in listening to speeches by politicians who are part of governments that stoke the fires of Islamophobia make attempts to gain popularity points for trying to put those fires out once they start burning out of control. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.