After a gunman killed six people and wounded 19 others at a Quebec City mosque, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to condemn the killings as a “terrorist attack on Muslims.”
He went on to say that “Muslim-Canadians are an important part of our national fabric, and these senseless acts have no place in our communities, cities and country.” Candlelight vigils across Canada mourned the victims.
But that sentiment elides a more uncomfortable truth: the number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslim-Canadians more than doubled between 2012 and 2014, from 45 to 99.
Amira Elghawaby, communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, called the increase “the most significant rise of any group in the country.”
Experts say about two-thirds of hate crimes go unreported, so the numbers are undoubtedly larger.
The victims of the shooting Sunday night at the Islamic Cultural Center ranged from 39 to 60 years of age, and they were employed as civil servants, businessmen, and university professors. Most had young children.
When the mosque reopened Wednesday to those who wished to pray, blood still stained the carpet and bullet holes pocked the walls.
Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old social sciences student at Laval University, has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder.
“People are a little bit more fearful,” said Elghawaby, adding, “To have someone enter that space and wreak such havoc and take the lives of six innocent people, I think that has shattered many of us to our core.”
The attack has left the entire country shaken.
Quebec City, with a population of just over 500,000, saw only one homicide last year. The last mass murder in the surrounding province of Quebec occurred in 2006, when a shooting in Montreal left two dead.
Recent studies have shown many Canadians being uncomfortable with Islam.
A 2015 survey commissioned by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that while nearly half of respondents had a negative view of religion, only 5.5% said they were bothered by a public servant wearing a cross, compared with the 48.9% who expressed discomfort with being attended to by a woman wearing a hijab.
Nationwide, a Forum Poll survey released in December showed that 28% of respondents had unfavorable feelings about Muslims.
According to the newspaper La Presse, Bissonnette did nothing to conceal his hostility toward Muslims in interrogations conducted after his arrest.
Bissonnette’s beliefs were likely informed by right-wing extremist groups online, says Barbara Perry, a global hate crime expert at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
These groups, says Perry, often attract outsiders and those who feel themselves to be disadvantaged. “There are also those who are drawn through a broader sense of something being awry in the culture around them, in a changing world where they see a loss of white male privilege in particular,” she says.
According to Perry, these far-right groups now operate with a certain legitimacy. Her 2015 research showed over 100 such organizations operating in Canada, with groups like La Meute (the wolf pack) and Soldiers of Odin gaining rapidly in membership and mainstream awareness.
“They’re enabled and emboldened now to come out of the shadows,” she says.
Canada is generally a welcoming and inclusive society, but conservative politicians often have cast Muslims in a negative light, said Kamal al Solaylee, author of “Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).”
“We started talking about ‘Canadian values,’” said Al Solaylee, who points to several instances of dog-whistle political rhetoric leading up to the 2015 federal election. The 2013 Charter of Values was a bill that sought to prohibit public sector employees from displaying “conspicuous” religious symbols and targeted Muslim women’s headscarves in particular.
The proposal died but the debate furthered rhetoric attacking multiculturalism.
For Al Solaylee, political rhetoric and online hate groups cross-pollinate. “It’s an ecosystem,” he said. “Politicians word things differently, less crudely, but they all swim in the same pool.”
And the effects of this incitement can be disastrous, says Elghawaby. “Often whenever there is a terrorist attack or [Islamophobic] political rhetoric, there is an uptick in the number of hate instances and hate crimes that are reported,” she said.
“Last year in Toronto a woman walking to go pick up her children from school was physically assaulted in the middle of the day. That was right after the Paris bombings.”
Elghawaby believes that the Quebec City shooting may have occurred as a backlash against Trudeau tweeting “#WelcomeToCanada” in response to U.S. President Trump’s order temporarily banning entry into the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
For far-right groups in Canada, immigration and refugee issues especially act as a rallying point. And according to Perry, it is in Quebec in particular that these issues are coming to a head.
“There really is an important distinction between Islamophobia in Quebec, and the right-wing in Quebec, relative to that of other parts of the country,” she says. “Elsewhere there tends to be that traditional white nationalism — where the intent is to preserve the white race, to preserve white culture, and white Christian culture especially — whereas what we see in Quebec is much more akin to European nationalism.”
Still, Al Solaylee is optimistic that the tragedy will act as a wake-up call.
“I think Canada is a great country, but there is a sense that we’re better than the U.S. and that this sort of thing doesn’t happen here,” he said. “I think it’s a moment for Canada to realize that words and rhetoric and this fever pitch discourse will have consequences on people’s lives.”
Favreau is a special correspondent.