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Hate crime in Montreal: How we talk about immigration matters

“This is how racism and xenophobia seep in. Via sensationalistic newspaper articles that breed suspicion. Or via casual debates on TV panels presenting these thoughts as ‘common sense.’ Eventually, that carefully manufactured fear blows up in someone’s face.”

On Aug. 29, around 6 p.m., after a long day of work, Rahat decided to walk his dog in his Old Montreal neighbourhood when — completely unprovoked — a man who appears to be in his mid-50s approached him and started verbally accosting him. The man loudly yelled at Rahat, slowly enunciating every word. 

“Rentre chez toi. Tu est ici dans une exercice très mal intentionné d’Ottawa et tu le saistrès bien. Toi et les tiens, vous venez ici, nous détruire notre peuple. Toi tu as ton peuple chez toi, tu peux rentrer quand tu veux, mais tu viens ici nous détruire. Tu trouve ça beau, toi? C’est laid et tu le sais.” 

“Go back home. You are here because of a malicious plan by Ottawa, and you know it. You and others like you come here to destroy our people. You have your people back home, you can go home when you want to, but you come here to destroy us. You find that nice? It’s ugly and you know it.”

Shaken by the hateful incident

Shocked by the unprovoked attack, Rahat called his fiancée Claudia at home and then started recording him. He soon found out this wasn’t an isolated incident. When Claudia saw the video, she immediately recognized the man and his voice as belonging to someone who had attacked a woman wearing a hijab in the same neighbourhood earlier that month. Since Rahat posted the video online on his Facebook and TikTok pages, calling it “one of the worst days of his life,” three more people have reached out to him with similar stories about the individual in question. 

Rahat says the fact that the verbal attack happened so close to his home makes him feel unsafe and shaken. 

An engineer and director of data science at an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company based in Montreal, Rahat says he’s a proud Canadian and has built a happy life in Montreal. Originally from Bangladesh, he first came to Canada nine years ago as an international master’s student at the University of Saskatchewan, eventually becoming a Canadian citizen. For the past five or six years, he’s been living and working in Montreal. 

“I’m extremely proud to call myself a Canadian,” he says, “and I believe I contribute to the country’s economy and prosperity every single day.” 

The incident, he says, was traumatic. “I was angry and disgusted. Now, every time I take my dog out for a walk, I worry I might encounter this person again or that he might do it to someone else.”

Lacklustre response from 911 

Rahat says he called 911, but his attempt to report the incident was met with little interest. “I understand French, but I don’t speak it fully, so I was trying to explain what happened in English. The 911 responder kept asking me rather impatiently whether the man had physically attacked me and didn’t seem too interested in the verbal attack.

“He literally yelled at me, ‘Did he touch you, yes or no? I’m asking you, yes, or no?’ If I’m calling 911 to report a verbal attack, I don’t need the first responder to add to that trauma,” says Rahat. 

The first responder’s tone changed considerably, however, says Claudia, when she spoke to them, this time in French. “There was definitely a double standard in the way he was treated,” she confirms. “Suddenly, with me, the person on the line was much more polite and reassuring. When someone is calling 911, you should be kind.” 

Rahat’s call was not redirected so he could file an official police report, even though the incident has all the makings of a hate crime motivated by racism. 

“I didn’t speak a single word to this man,” says Rahat. “He had no way of knowing if I spoke English or French and I didn’t say anything that could have provoked him. I was attacked purely because of my skin colour.”

Claudia, who works as a lawyer, is a francophone Quebecer originally from Quebec City. She says she’s upset about both the attack and the way the man she loves was treated when he tried to report it. 

“I was actually cooking when he called me and I stopped everything, because I felt the need to go defend him,” she says. “Rahat is contributing so much here and there’s no reason to shame him because of his skin colour.” The incident, she says, left her feeling really angry and sad for him. 

“We spoke with my family, and he knows that he’s loved and appreciated,” she says. “But still, to see this (happen) in real life… When I saw the video, I thought, ‘He’s talking to my person.’ I was sad and angry for sure.”

Anti-immigrant rhetoric emboldens people afraid of the ‘other’

Journal de Montréal Montreal hate crime immigration
Hate crimes in Montreal: How we talk about immigration matters

While the video — which clearly identifies the man and his hate speech — has been posted online, I chose not to include it. My intent isn’t to contribute to clickbait (and hopefully a report will soon be filed with police who can follow up on the incident) but to show that how we talk about immigration matters profoundly. The rhetoric of certain politicians and anti-immigrant pundits lays the groundwork for people who feel threatened by “others.” It justifies and emboldens their hate. So much so that some may feel completely at ease attacking an innocent man on the street for doing nothing more innocuous than walking his dog on a summer evening.  

Quebec isn’t more racist than other Canadian provinces. You can find racists across the country spewing similar versions of hate for the ‘other’ in either language, and most of us already know they don’t represent the majority of Quebecers and Canadians. The reason I decided to write about this incident was because the “reasoning” the man used to justify his attack troubled me. It was word-for-word the rhetoric we see routinely plastered on some of the front pages of this province’s most-read tabloid. If you deliberately and constantly choose to treat immigrants as an existential threat to Quebec’s survival, don’t be surprised if some people respond to that fear-mongering with targeted hate. 

“Quebec is trapped!” screams a recent cover of the Journal de Montréal. For added terror, the front-page graphics feature a steel bear trap decorated with a maple leaf, with a giant fleur-de-lys trapped inside. Beneath the visual, we read, “French forced to decline, its political influence condemned, 12 million residents in Montreal, Quebec with 5 million population, Ottawa’s grand plan explained.” 

The line below features some of the paper’s star columnists with their topics that day. “Justin is more cunning than you think,” writes Richard Martineau. “They want to assimilate us,” writes Denise Bombardier in one of her last columns. “All this, without debate,” adds Mario Dumont, and finally, the always uplifting words of Mathieu Bock-Côté with one of his 20 apocalyptic columns that week, “Two catastrophic scenarios.” 

The language we use matters

Now, imagine this is all you read, day in and day out. Tales of “destruction” and imminent “demographic drowning” and the carefully orchestrated “annihilation” of your language and culture. There are thousands of these columns online, and I’m refusing to link to any of them. Terrifying doomsday predictions of how “your people” are losing ground thanks to the diabolical machinations of the federal government, bringing in hordes of “others” to wipe you out. (That same government, by the way, recently committed to spending $4.1-billion over the next five years for official-languages minorities and the revitalization of French, but why bother with inconvenient details?)

A steady diet of this type of anti-immigrant rhetoric and you, too, might find yourself on the street some day telling some man you don’t know and who never harmed you how “he and his kind” have come here to destroy all that you know and love. And if you’re not inclined to accost someone on the street, perhaps you start silently thinking it, and then you start voting for people who think it, too. 

This is how racism and xenophobia seep in. They’re insidious and often delivered via well-dressed folks uttering fancy multisyllabic words at breakneck speed. Or via casual debates taking place on TV panels presenting these thoughts as “common sense.” Or via sensationalistic newspaper articles that breed suspicion. Eventually, that carefully manufactured fear blows up in someone’s face. There’s currently a trial underway in Windsor, Ontario of a man accused of mowing down four members of a Muslim family. That hate didn’t appear out of thin air; it was slowly manufactured. The people who propagate this type of rhetoric never have to deal with its ugly, sometimes deadly consequences. 

While Rahat says he’s very thankful for the support he’s received from family and friends, and he genuinely feels appreciated for his presence here, he says he also received a lot of hate messages online after posting the video by people agreeing with the man who attacked him. Hence why only his first name has been used here, at his request. 

He says he’s seen the climate change in the past three or four years. “Some media outlets and political parties are creating this ‘divide and conquer’ attitude and it’s sad. Regular Quebecers and Canadians are not like that. They’re friendly.” 

The couple are concerned it will only get worse. They’re also worried they might encounter the man again. “I’d call 911 without hesitating,” Rahat says. “We’re law-abiding, we wouldn’t take matters into our own hands.”

But the incident has left him questioning where he belongs. 

“A week after the incident,” Claudia says, “he was wondering whether we should move. We’ve definitely had those discussions. And I, of course, would move with him.”

UPDATE: On the night of Sept. 11, right before publication, Rahat informed me that he and Claudia encountered the man again in their Old Montreal neighbourhood. He immediately started berating them, telling Rahat to “go back where he came from,” and asking Claudia why she supported him. Rahat called 911 but the man fled before police arrived. Rahat told me that this time he felt heard and supported by the police officers, who took the photo he had snapped and will be filing a police report.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.