On Feb. 19, Halifax awoke to the terrible news that an overnight house fire had claimed the lives of seven children, leaving their father critically injured after trying to save them.
Their mother managed to escape uninjured, and neighbours reported seeing people holding her back from the flames as the home was destroyed.
In the days following, there has been an outpouring of support for Kawthar and Ebraheim Barho.
Hundreds took part in a vigil on Wednesday and thousands attended a public funeral for the children on Saturday. As of Monday afternoon, more than $640,000 has been raised on a GoFundMe campaign.
But there has also been a proliferation of hateful and often racist comments on social media. Those comments continue to pile up.
One news channel in Quebec was forced to remove its story on the fire because of hateful comments, some of which said things like “good riddance,” and “we’re tired of paying for them.”
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That isn’t surprising to Alex Khasnabish, a Mount Saint Vincent University professor of anthropology who studies the rise of fascism. He says some of the comments he’s seen online about stories related to the fire have been “outright hate speech.”
“I think that that absolutely crosses the line from the kind of commentary we might expect around a tragedy like this, wondering why it happened,” he said.
“Questioning what the family was up to in the lead-up to the fire, whether they were building bombs, whether they were engaged in some kind of terrorist plot.”
WATCH: Hateful online comments following fatal Halifax fire
Khasnabish says a similar kind of sentiment was raised online when the Trudeau government announced it would be bringing Syrian refugees to Canada.
The Barhos were among those who arrived in 2017, privately sponsored by a group called the Hants East Assisting Refugee Team (HEART) Society.
“As somebody who studies the far right and fascism right now and understands it in a historical and sociological perspective, I have seen, like many people have, these sentiments circulating intentionally in an organized kind of way for years now,” he said.
“These are big red flags for a society that is not addressing this kind of animosity, resentment, really hatred towards vulnerable groups of people.”
Khasnabish rejects the idea that people have a right to say these things.
“It’s really easy to write this off as a speech issue, and even worse as a free speech issue, that people have the right to say basically totally violent, conspiratorial, baseless things that are intended to whip up violence against people,” he said.
These online comments may not necessarily reflect the kinds of conversations people are having in real life.
“To some extent, it’s easier in online spaces to engage in forms of discourse that I think if you were face-to-face with somebody that you probably wouldn’t,” Khasnabish said.
“That said, I would really resist chalking this up to a media problem. I don’t think it’s actually due exclusively or even primarily to the kinds of media we’re using to communicate. I think this has an awful lot to do with something that’s already in the water.”
WATCH: Saying goodbye to the Barho children
Overwhelmingly the response to these stories has been one of empathy and compassion. Often, commenters are challenged by others on their views.
“I would just hope that people would look in the mirror, at this moment, and challenge themselves to be better,” Khasnabish said.
“But if they can’t do that then I would say it’s incumbent on the rest of us to actually hold our family, friends, coworkers, and community members to account on issues like this. Fascism is never defeated by ignoring it, it’s only ever defeated by people standing strongly together against it.”
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