A myth is developing about Canada, my country: that our arms are wide open to immigrants. It’s also easy to begin believing in that myth yourself when you read it often enough. I’m happy that we’re known for something so generous, but I got a reality check this week.
I live in Waterloo, Ontario, which is twinned with its neighbour Kitchener. The two cities are so close that a few people even have the city border going through their living rooms. We call ourselves Kitchener-Waterloo, or K-W for short. The next level of government is the Region of Waterloo, and includes K-W, Cambridge, and a few townships. All told, the entire region is about a half million people or so.
We’re a fairly diverse region, too. Being only an hour away from Toronto and just over two from the border, you pretty much see all walks of life. Each city of course has its own personality, and that adds to the colour of living here. We have two universities and a college (generally, “college” in Canada refers to community college, and many have excellent reputations and provide a solid education). Waterloo is also home to Blackberry, for better or for worse.
I could look up statistics on the cultural make-up of the region, but I don’t want to bore you. You see pretty much everyone here. The other month, I walked through the mall near my home, and an Old Order Mennonite crossed my path, whereupon a Sikh caught my attention, and then I saw a Muslim.
And no one cared. Each just went about their own business.
The same happens everyday on the bus: people who are clearly from different cultures and religions get on, sit next to each other, get off at their destination, and, again, no one cares. Yes, many with conservative views live here, but I wouldn’t generally consider the majority racist, prejudiced, or fear-mongering.
I’d read that prejudice was alive and well in Canada, and although I don’t think I’ve ever denied that, I’ve managed to just push it out of my mind. If anything prejudiced happened, it was usually somewhere else.
And Then This Happened
The Muslim Association of Canada owns a piece of property in Waterloo. They’d like the zoning changed from agricultural to institutional and green space so they can build a prayer centre on it for now and possibly a mosque in the next decade or so. The public first became aware of this proposal last year, and a flyer was circulated: “Together you are stronger! Protect your property, lifestyle and rights!”
One circulated again this year. It claims that the location is wrong and that the need for a Muslim centre in this location is unjustified.
The association held a public meeting to let neighbours know about the planned changes. All meetings have an agenda, of course, and from what I can tell, the agenda for this one was a few presentations followed by one-on-one style discussions. There was no plan on the itinerary to allow attendees to give their own speeches or presentations, but they were invited to approach the representatives at the front and ask questions after presentations had concluded.
I’m going to quote now from Luisa d’Amato, a columnist for our local paper, The Record. (It’s important to note that The Record didn’t have someone there covering the meeting):
There were comments from the association, the architect and a City of Waterloo planning official. After that, there was an opportunity for individual residents to approach the experts one-on-one, and ask questions.
More than 100 people attended. When one audience member tried to grab the microphone and speak, she was told that this wasn’t part of the format for that meeting.
“You’re in Canada now,” the woman told [meeting co-organizer and member of the neighbourhood Rania] Lawendy. “Go back to Pakistan. Here, we can say what we want.”
Lawendy, who was born and raised in Canada, responded that racist rhetoric wouldn’t be allowed at the meeting.
Then, some people got angry. People chanted “Let her speak.” Someone ripped up the papers where visitors had signed in.
Now, anyone local reading this knows d’Amato’s reputation: she often rants more than she writes strong arguments for her opinions. One thing you cannot say about her, though, is that she treads carefully. Instead, she is open, direct, sometimes even rude, but she writes what she’s thinking. Sometimes it’s what others are thinking and sometimes it’s not. But many read her, and this column brought the whole issue to my eyes.
Yesterday, a few letters to the editor were published in response to this story and d’Amato’s column. Several were appalled at the attendees’ behaviour and emphasized that bigotry and racism were not acceptable in Canada.
However, one letter writer accused The Record of not presenting both sides of the story. According to her, the woman who tried to steal the mic said, “This is Canada, not Pakistan. What are you afraid of?”
The woman ended her letter by saying, “People were outraged that they did not have a public voice at this meeting to air their concerns.”
And this is where I become concerned. I’ve attended a few public consultations over the years, though it’s been a while. Attendees were never given the floor. Instead, we were asked to speak to representatives to express our concerns and ask our questions. I was never insulted by this, nor did I ever believe the government was trying to remove my right to freedom of speech.
This approach also makes more sense: I’m certain we also had over 100 people in attendance at these consultations. Can you imagine if we had all had a chance to address the entire room through a mic? It’d have been a multi-person filibuster.
The letter writer says attendees weren’t able to voice their concerns at this meeting, but the opportunity to speak with the experts and members of this association was offered. By inviting people to come to the front to speak with them, the meeting as it was designed would have allowed many more to voice their opinions.
And yet, what came out of one woman’s mouth was not a constructive question, but an unfounded, prejudiced accusation and a challenge.
d’Amato in her column listed a few other things that were said:
“You should be on a farm somewhere where no one can see you.”
“This is going to bring more Muslim families to the neighbourhood, and that’s going to lower my house value.”
“I hope this city stops the Muslim centre, and all other Muslim places torn down.”
There’s a difference between a well-thought-out argument and a bigoted slur. There’s also a difference between respectful opposition and bullying.
The attendees that I read about seem to have exhibited the latter side of each of those sentences.
This experience has been weighing on me these last few days. At d’Amato’s suggestion, I emailed the team putting this prayer centre together and offered my emotional support: there is no need for them to have to experience this kind of ugliness. They sent me a link for a petition to sign that supported their endeavour. I did so.
Unfortunately, though, I’m sad to say, prejudiced thought is alive and well in Canada.