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COMMENTARY: Islamophobia and racism were part of this election long before Trudeau’s racist makeup

Justin Trudeau seen in blackface in Global News exclusive video

I don’t know who is going to win in this federal election but I already know who has a lot to lose.

It’s those of us who make up Canada’s diverse minority communities. We are the ones who have to endure anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-Sikh, anti-Semitic, white supremacist narratives, candidates and comments.

Yet, why does it feel it’s only now that the images of the prime minister dressed up in racist makeup decades ago has captured the country’s attention, finally bringing race fully into the conversation?

READ MORE: Trudeau apologizes after 2001 brownface photo published by Time magazine

The irony here is that Justin Trudeau has, in fact, taken a lot of heat for standing up to racists and, in particular, to anti-Muslim sentiment.

Among the misinformation and deliberate smears against the Liberal leader is that he is a Muslim. He has faced the accusation by far-right groups and actors online and at protest rallies for a variety of reasons. These reasons include that his government has accepted more than 50,000 Syrian refugees since 2015, countered Islamophobia with Motion 103 and apologized and compensated Omar Khadr for the violations of his rights.

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While the suggestion that he is an Islamist may be as ludicrous as the Netflix comedy in which a comedian tries to convert him to Islam, the consequences of growing Islamophobia among Canadians is not. In fact, Alexandre Bissonnette, the young man who murdered six men in a Quebec City mosque in 2017, told police that he snapped when Trudeau famously tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

Consistent polls have demonstrated over the years that Canadians increasingly view Muslims negatively or believe that Muslims face the worst discrimination of any minority group in the country.

READ MORE: Nearly half of Canadians view Islam unfavourably, survey finds (April 4, 2017)

That makes the Islamophobic smears against Trudeau even more ominous and is why some of the consternation about the images feels less than genuine among folks who have never before said a word against systemic racism or welcomed efforts to address it.

Painting Trudeau’s government as sympathetic to Muslims, in particular, has made strategies to address Islamophobia, anti-black racism and other forms of discrimination contentious when it shouldn’t be.

A cartoon by Quebec artist Ygreck that surfaced on social media this week is a case in point. It features a smiling Trudeau taking a selfie with a shark’s fin dressed up like a woman in a hijab. The words “Radical Islam” are written in French on the shark’s body. Unsurprising, perhaps, coming out of Quebec, where Islamophobic narratives are widespread in most mainstream media. This is the context in which a majority of the province’s residents think it’s fine to strip away the charter rights of fellow Quebecers who wear religious clothing.

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READ MORE: A third of Canadians in favour of banning officials from wearing religious symbols — poll

As for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, he initially wouldn’t even mention that Muslims were the ones targeted in a white supremacist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last March. One can only presume that he was worried about Conservative voters who say too many immigrants to Canada are visible minorities.

Scheer’s current campaign manager also happens to be Hamish Marshall, a past director at the far-right, Islamophobic Rebel Media — whose co-founder Ezra Levant was most disturbingly invited to write a column for the Globe and Mail newspaper this week.

The leader of the People’s Party of Canada didn’t bother to acknowledge that the Christchurch attack happened at all. In fact, Maxime Bernier launched his independent right-wing party based on a Twitter rant against multiculturalism. Bernier stood alongside the keynote speaker of a party conference who claimed Islamists are “infesting” Liberal Party of Canada, a claim made by a keynote speaker at his party’s inaugural conference this past August.

That Bernier attracts the extreme fringe is despicable but not unsurprising. He’s been in photos with neo-Nazis, employed one on his campaign team (though he says neither were known) and even expelled a candidate who asked him to denounce white supremacy. No one is under any illusion about whom Bernier is attracting. (It’s the same reason people are questioning why this clown would be allowed into the official leaders’ debates. His presence only legitimizes hate.)

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Yet, if Scheer is serious about representing all Canadians, then he must do far better in speaking out forcefully and unequivocally against the Islamophobia of his supporters, which has only gotten worse since the last federal election.

That includes making actual policy commitments towards strengthening multiculturalism and promoting inclusive communities.

WATCH BELOW: Coverage of Justin Trudeau images showing him in racist makeup

Politicians make mistakes, and it’s impossible to know if apologies are genuine. What we can do is hold everyone to account for participating in narratives that put communities at risk. Should a pattern of tacit or explicit support of racism continue, voters must send a powerful message at the ballot box and reject the politics of division.

Amira Elghawaby is a writer and human rights advocate. Follow her on Twitter @AmiraElghawaby.