A somber Saskatoon commemoration of the lives lost during the 2017 attack on a Quebec mosque was disrupted by the very thing the ceremony was meant to defeat.
On Jan. 29, a member of the University of Saskatchewan Muslim Student Association (MSA) was reading the names of the people injured and killed when several people jumped into the virtual ceremony and started yelling racist remarks.
“The words that they said to us, the swastika they drew… it felt like a physical attack,” Iqra Khan, the group’s treasurer, said.
Group president Abdirahman Ali said the drawings and comments came at a vulnerable moment during last Friday’s ceremony.
“We were all in that mode of remembering, the mode of showing empathy and putting ourselves in their shoes.”
They both told Global News, over Zoom, the ceremony was especially meaningful because they both have been subject to racist behaviour and because Islamophobic incidents usually beget more. Khan noted the 2017 attack seems to have partially inspired the 2018 attack on a mosque in New Zealand, and she said she’s seeing more racist incidents every year.
An anti-racism advocate agrees.
The Saskatoon Anti-Racism Network’s Manuela Valle-Castro said white nationalist ideology has spread very quickly “in the past four years or so.”
She said the rise is driven by economic anxiety and the imagined threats posed by immigration and the decline of the era of white dominance in Canada.
She said those same beliefs, and anger, are galvanizing anti-maskers and “freedom rally” participants, some of whom demonstrated outside the house of the province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, last week.
Valle-Castro said the interruption of the students’ memorial service wasn’t surprising.
“It just shows the level of dehumanization that these discourses create, that you have no empathy for the other because the other is so different from you … it’s not like you, it’s not human,” she said, speaking via Zoom.
She warned all attacks and rhetoric, whether whispered or shouted, are dangerous.
“Dehumanization is the first stage of actions that are more serious, like massacres. So we should never minimize or trivialize any of these events.”
Valle-Castro said the cure was to engage with people who hold racist beliefs, since forcing the dialogues underground only gives them more room to fester.
Ali said he doesn’t know who the people yelling racist remarks were, but told Global News he is willing to meet with them.
“If that was out of ignorance, our door is always open and we invite you for a cup of coffee or tea or to have a chat,” he said, “but if your intention was to intimidate us, we are not. We will not stop. We will always be proud Muslims.”
Khan said the MSA recently organized a week dedicated to confronting stereotypes about their religion and that this incident has only motivated her.
“We don’t slow down, we won’t take it and become victims, but rather we fight against Islamophobia even harder,” she said.
A representative of the group said they had filed a police report.
In a statement, USask Vice-Provost Patti McDougall said the university is aware of the incident and is investigating.
“When hateful, harassing or discriminatory behaviour is brought forward, we immediately investigate to the extent possible and provide support to those affected,” the statement said.
“In this case, we are also examining protective measures that we can use for university events, and recommended to our student groups, to ensure secure platforms are used and only invited participants take part in our remote online gatherings.”