March 26, 2019 2:54 pm
Updated: March 27, 2019 4:15 pm

COMMENTARY: New Zealand’s response to mosque massacre offers lessons for Canada

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern helped lead Friday's prayer service at Hagley Park in Christchurch, where just across the street a gunman opened fire on the first of two mosques.

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Like many people around the world, I am in awe of New Zealand’s prime minister.

My admiration isn’t solely based on Jacinda Ardern’s graceful compassion — though that has provided a balm for so many of us who were deeply shaken by the horrific violation of human life and dignity in our most sacred of spaces.

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The deep sense of appreciation is also due to the fact that her actions — and those of her government — have stood in stark contrast to those that followed a terrorist attack here at home in which a terrorist similarly massacred six worshippers and injured many more in a Quebec City mosque in 2017.

READ MORE: Why New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has the world’s attention

It’s instructive to look at how these two massacres played out in both these nations to better understand how our various levels of governments in Canada are failing to meet the challenge of growing far-right movements and the climate that nurtures them.

It’s barely a week after the tragedy and Ardern has already called for a public inquiry into how the attacks could have even occurred.

“It is important that no stone is left unturned to get to the bottom of how this act of terrorism occurred and what, if any, opportunities we had to stop it,” she said as she outlined the areas a royal commission will examine. Headed up by a high court judge, the inquiry will examine the role of social media and possible intelligence failures in the attacks.

WATCH BELOW: Jacinda Ardern visits city where shooter lived

Here in Canada, there was no similar inquiry. Far from it.

On the contrary, following the Quebec City attack, CSIS quietly conducted a “preliminary threat assessment” that was kept largely secret from the public regarding the threat of far-right extremists.  While it reopened investigations into these movements in 2017, a 2018 public safety report on terrorism and extremism failed to identify these movements as a threat to national security, instead calling them more of a “threat to the fabric of Canadian society.” That same report also suggested that far-right groups in Canada are not openly promoting violence, when there is ample evidence of the opposite.

Canadian researchers and advocates have called for increased resources, strengthened or new legislation and more focus on policing. One community advocacy group has even called on the government to add a paramilitary, anti-Muslim group to Canada’s terror watch list. The federal government finally seems to be getting the message with modest funding initiatives related to studying far-right movements.

READ MORE: Quebec City Muslim community reliving terror, pain after hearing about New Zealand mosque attacks

And a public inquiry following the Quebec City attack would have offered immense value in helping better understand what led a young man to go on a shooting rampage of innocent worshippers. While we would learn that he had consumed a variety of far-right, white supremacist content online, an inquiry would most certainly have additionally shone light on media outlets that regularly trade in anti-Muslim tropes and narratives.

In fact, for a brief moment following the killings, there were mea culpas from media personalities and politicians who spoke about how “words could cut like knives”. Those sentiments quickly dissipated and the status quo returned.

Without any real accountability, there is little hope for change. The climate is so toxic that just a few weeks ago, some people were even celebrating the death of seven Syrian refugee children in a house fire in Halifax. Quebec’s own Premier, François Legault,  has himself struggled to admit the existence of Islamophobia altogether.

WATCH BELOW: Jacinda Ardern announces measures after mosque attack

New Zealand’s prime minister also quickly promised to help care for the victim’s families. In Quebec, the wife of one of the men who was killed was only granted compensation on the eve of the two year anniversary after fighting to be recognized as a victim that entire time.

Then there are the countless numbers of women across New Zealand who donned a headscarf, just as their prime minister did, to show support to the nation’s Muslim communities. This is perhaps the most jarring contrast of all — Quebec’s government wants to force women to either choose between wearing their headscarves or to work in the public service. The decade-long obsession around the wearing of the hijab in Quebec insinuates over and over again that religious minorities should not have the same rights and freedoms as other Quebecers. This entrenches systemic discrimination and fuels division.

New Zealand’s government also moved quickly to implement a widely-lauded ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles, and high-capacity magazines. Whereas in Quebec, there continues to be widespread reluctance among gun owners to comply with recent legislation requiring them to register their weapons. And at both provincial and federal levels, there are concerns that not enough is being done to screen gun buyers for mental illness, or extremist views.

Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of the gun control advocacy group PolySeSouvient, lamented Canada’s slow pace of change compared to New Zealand. “It shows we are sorely lacking in political leadership and courage when it comes to gun control,” she remarked.

READ MORE: Islamophobia in Canada isn’t new. Experts say it’s time we face the problem

To point out where we may have fallen short in comparison with New Zealand’s response is not to ignore the waves of love and solidarity that engulfed our communities here in Canada following the tragic attack in Quebec, or even following these most recent ones in New Zealand. Like those who performed the Haka in honour of the victims or who stood protectively behind worshippers as they prayed, those who stood hand in hand in rings of peace circling mosques in this country demonstrated empathy and support for minority Muslim communities.

Yet, we should always strive to do better — as should our governments. New Zealand has shown us how.

Amira Elghawaby is a human rights advocate and board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. Follow her on Twitter @AmiraElghawaby

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