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Multiculturalism and Civil Rights

Published: 2003/04/01 : News . Position Papers .

Position Statement
Multiculturalism and civil rights
April, 2003

September the 11th and its aftermath have left Arab and Muslim Canadians reeling with sentiments of anxiety, fear, alienation, marginalization, betrayal, and disillusionment. There have been many causes for this: Key among them is what would, by Canadian standards, easily qualify as an excessive, overzealous security agenda.

“The backlash” to September the 11th started with acts of hate and racism directed at Arab and Muslim Canadians on the streets of our cities, in schoolyards and workplaces, from neighbours and strangers alike, from vandals who attacked places of worship. Next in the chronology came mass detentions of Arabs and Muslims: hundreds here, thousands across the border, incarcerated under a cloak of secrecy: secret detentions, secret hearings, secret evidence, secret names, and secret numbers of those arrested.

Bill C-36 followed and quickly became law, allowing, among other things, preventative detentions and forced testimony – anathemas in a free society. While some argue rightly that the Anti-Terrorism Act does not single out Arabs and Muslims and is directed at all Canadians, in the climate following September the 11th these communities cannot help but feel targeted.

Also following the tragic events of that day there were reported abuses by law enforcement, and CSIS in particular, that seemed to cast a wide net. While on this fishing expedition, CSIS conducted intrusive interrogation of innocent people, and, most damaging, pressured ordinary Arab Canadians to act as spies and inform on their friends and colleagues.

Many in the media have had a field day demonizing Arabs and Muslims and painting them all with the bin Laden brush. The stereotypes and racist overtones put forward by some in the mainstream media confirmed the permissibility of singling out Arabs and Muslims for suspicious treatment: they are guilty by association, suspect by nature of their ethnicity and religion, therefore, an acceptable subject of hate.

The failure of our society in this regard was in not sending a clear signal to the contrary; society did not come to the aid of this maligned minority. This, despite the best efforts of church groups, other well-meaning citizens and some in the law enforcement community, who built bridges and spoke out against discrimination. But by-and-large, Arab and Muslim Canadians were left standing on their own, having to explain themselves and prove their loyalty; defend their religion and demonstrate its goodness; and at times hide their ethnicity and deny their heritage in a bid to escape scrutiny. The effect on Arab communities is that, like their Japanese Canadian counterparts during World War II, they too have become victims of psychological internment.

In the meantime, mainstream institutions, including governments, simply looked the other way. Perhaps officials felt they could not be introducing legislation and measures that target Arabs and Muslims while at the same time telling other Canadians not to single them out for discrimination.

Predictably, Canadians concurred. In an EKOS poll released in September 2002, fully half of respondents agreed that Canadians of Arab origin should be targeted for extra security attention. 37% of respondents confessed to having developed negative views towards Arabs and Muslims. A study conducted by the Canadian Arab Federation post September 11th, showed that 41% of Arab Canadians believe that Canadians don’t like Muslims, and 84% of respondents thought Canadians view Arabs as violent. The same study showed that 13% of Arab children have faced discrimination in schools, 27% of respondents faced discrimination in the workplace, and one out of four families have experienced racism first hand. Not a pretty multicultural picture.

Another revealing finding of the CAF study showed that only 14% of Arab Canadians feel the Canadian government is concerned with their issues. Canadian society and institutions have simply not done enough to alleviate the impact of the security agenda on affected communities specifically, and multiculturalism in general.

One can argue, perhaps convincingly, that, as a country, Canada had no choice, given its alliance with, and reliance on trade with the US, but to enact tough security legislation and ratify firm measures following September the 11th. But why did Canadian society have to turn its back on the Arabs and Muslims within it in the process?

This was evident in a number of instances, among them:

  • The Justice Department, after showing initial interest in Arab and Muslim Canadian concerns, then walked away.
  • The Solicitor General, after expressing empathy with the communities’ plight, then refused to help monitor abuses of the Anti-Terrorism Act by law enforcement or security agencies.
  • The Minister of Foreign Affairs lifted the travel advisory to the US when Arab and Muslim Canadians traveling there continued to face humiliation and treatment normally reserved for charged criminals.
  • The Ontario Public Safety Minister condoned the racial profiling taking place at the US border – against his own citizens.
  • The Ontario government hired a security consultant (Ret. General Louis MacKenzie) who openly condoned racial profiling
  • The mayor of Canada’s largest city, whose logo is “Diversity is Our Strength”, never spoke out against the victimization of Arabs and Muslims post September the 11th.

Canadians ought to have learned from past internment, ghettoization and marginalization of groups. This society knows that institutionalized discrimination leads to hate, that targeting every Arab or Muslim as a suspect is not only degrading and unjust but dangerous for society too.

Elements of Bills C-17 and C-18 today stand as prime examples of the intrusions on privacy and violations of rights this society does not need, and would normally have abhorred. By adopting the security agenda our country has been going against its own values of tolerance, diversity and equity.

Fear and political pressure have compelled this country to go against its own self; destroying parts of what it had meticulously built over decades upon painstaking decades of democratic evolution. Arab Canadians are today convinced there is a bigger threat to the Canadian way of life from the security agenda than there is from terrorism itself. CAF believes it is time we started calculating the costs to our society of eroding civil liberties and watering down democracy.

Given that multiculturalism is premised on the equal treatment and respect of all citizens, Canada needs to consider how the security agenda and multiculturalism can co-exist. To date, the former has come at the expense of the latter. Serious dialogue has to take place on how to reverse that. We need to determine, as a society, how to combine our desire to respect human rights and multiculturalism with our need to protect our security and trade interests.

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