“Welcome to Canada’s underwhelming election,” declared a recent headline in the Washington Post. It accompanied a bleak analysis by comedian Rick Mercer of this week’s English debate.
Yet, the election hasn’t been uneventful for a family caught in the crosshairs of the hate that has emerged during this campaign.
News that owners of a popular Syrian restaurant in Toronto decided to shut its doors permanently is the first clear evidence that this election will have ramifications long after the ballots are cast, the victors declared and the picket signs put aside.
The owners of Soufi’s store faced a barrage of hate after their son was doxxed — his personal information shared online — for being present at a rally last month. Protesters had gathered in front of Mohawk College in Hamilton, inside of which a fundraiser for the People’s Party of Canada was taking place. The party’s divisive leader Maxime Bernier was present, as were some of his supporters and the two sides faced off.
Not only was Alaa Alsoufi participating in the anti-racism protest, he was also filmed standing near a confrontation in which an elderly woman and her companion were harassed and prevented from crossing the road towards the event.
There’s no doubt that it was wrong for protesters to confront the elderly couple. Protesting anti-immigrant and racist policies and rhetoric is one thing, terrifying people is completely unacceptable. Violence and harassment are never justified. Hamilton police confirmed four people had been detained in connection with the incident.
However, rather than await the natural course of justice to play itself out, members of far-right groups and supporters have deliberately fueled anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim hatred by targeting the young man’s family, who are Syrian immigrants.
They have faced a barrage of death threats and hateful messages — so much so that they couldn’t go on with their business (though thanks to an offer of help from prominent Toronto businessman Mohamad Fakih of Paramount Foods, they will reopen this Friday).
Nonetheless, that a successful restaurant, run by recent immigrants, would have had to be shuttered to protect its owners, staff and customers is something that we’ve heard happening in other parts of the world, not in Canada. Mob rule is sadly a feature in countries where ethnic tensions are manipulated and used to pit communities against each other, often leading to devastating consequences.
It’s precisely because of this dangerous climate that the Leaders’ Debates Commission should not have provided Bernier with a platform during the two official debates. While it was important to see him called out by one of the debate’s moderators for using divisive language in his tweets and public statements, his presence brought his positions into mainstream discourse. Within a few minutes of speaking, he’d already accused the other party leaders of supporting “mass immigration,” arguably a dog-whistle to those who hold anti-immigrant views.
It’s also why Canadians should also be disturbed by the presence of the far-right Rebel Media among actual journalists at the debates. The Leaders’ Debates Commission rightly denied the outlet accreditation initially, but a judge overruled the decision and ordered that it be granted access.
The full reasoning hasn’t been released but it’s a head-scratcher when one considers that Rebel Media peddles in dangerous narratives against immigrants, Muslims, and others, and considering its past links with far-right figures including Faith Goldy and Tommy Robinson.
In fact, it was refreshing to see Bloq Quebecois Leader Yves Francois Blanchet refuse to answer a question from a Rebel Media reporter following the English debate. The irony of Blanchet standing up against such a divisive outlet when his party wholeheartedly supports Bill 21, which entrenches racism against religious minorities in Quebec, is not lost on anyone. Nor have people missed the fact that his party tweeted a message to voters that they should vote for people “who are like you” or “who look like you.”
All of this almost makes the 2015 election seem staid in comparison. Back then, Conservative party leader and then-prime minister Stephen Harper attacked the rights of women to wear a face veil during citizenship oaths and whose party was promoting a Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.
That’s why it was infuriating to see Alberta Premier Jason Kenney glad handing in the GTA this past weekend to help out the federal Conservatives. As former federal Conservative Minister of Immigration, Kenney was the architect of the new rules on face veils at citizenship oaths. While his nickname is Curry-in-a-Hurry for the ease in which he operates in immigrant communities, many of us recall the racist undertones of the federal Conservative party’s direction while he was among its senior leaders.
This week, current Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer stood at an unofficial border crossing in Quebec and mused about violent gangs entering the country illegally, à la Donald Trump.
Voters can only assume the party hasn’t learned anything from its past mistakes.
This is exactly the rhetoric that fuels the type of hatred the Alsoufi family has had to endure.
Amira Elghawaby is a human rights advocate based in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter @AmiraElghawaby