By Adrian Kiva on behalf of the La Pêche Coalition for a Green New Deal
As a community organization working towards a more just future for everyone, we want to talk about what happened in our community recently. A Black Muslim woman, identifying herself as MH, was assaulted in our municipality. She shared her story on Twitter. It was then shared widely online in our community. A lot of the online conversation centered on arguments about mask-wearing and about standing up for small business owners. Many comments questioned her narrative and said we should wait to pass judgement until we had “all the facts.”
Few comments centered MH and her terrible experience. To our group, this is not about masking or small business. This is not about passing judgement or boycotting. To us, this is a conversation about keeping our community safe together and how we can support people who are targets of hate and discrimination – in this case, anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.
We do not see this as a one-time conversation or as an isolated incident. As a group made up of racialized folks, but mostly of white folks trying to be allies and accomplices against racism, we see this as part of a larger problem being exposed right now about racism in Canada, in Québec, and in our own community.
This is an opportunity to begin to hold a public candid conversation about racism in our community. Just like the national conversation right now, it is long overdue. This will be an ongoing conversation, especially as more racialized families move into our municipality.
We see part of the problem in how we think and talk about tourists:
We see part of the problem as an us versus them mentality between residents (who are mostly white) and tourists (who are frequently racialized). When we do this, we are mirroring and potentially supporting anti-immigrant ideas. When people behave badly it makes sense to talk about that, but we should have the self-awareness to talk about it as a way of creating community standards, not scapegoating a section of our community. Tourists are part of our community. If we do want to talk about local businesses, we should remember who those businesses rely on. The tourists who come here to escape the crowded city in a pandemic, enjoy our businesses, and share the river have as much right to be here as everyone. We are all part of the same community (a community, it must be said again and again, that has been built on unceded unsurrendered Algonquin Anishnaabe territory). The river does not belong to anyone.
We see part of the problem in our willingness to call the police on each other:
How do we keep each other safe? When we talk about safety, whose safety are we talking about?
Many of us have not had regular contact with police or have had positive experiences which means many of us have positive ideas of police. Those experiences are valid, but it is equally valid that other communities, specifically lower income and/or racialized and/or Indigenous communities have very different experiences with and ideas about the police. When we call the police, we are responding to a perceived threat to our safety by creating a very real threat to theirs.
Safety should not be a trade-off, especially in a pandemic. When we make individuals less safe, we make our community less safe.
The facts are that she was masked, and others in the situation were not (a spokesperson for Health Québéc has acknowledged that using a headscarf to cover the face is adequate COVID-19 protection). Someone called the police. Someone assaulted her. And when the police arrived, she was yelled at, felt traumatized, and felt that the police’s treatment of her and her friend was “very harsh.”
What is the context for this assault?
The pandemic has revealed and exacerbated deeply-rooted inequalities. Racialized people are dying disproportionately in the pandemic (sources: CBC Toronto, CBC Montréal, CBC Montréal again, Maclean's). Per-capita police killings have been rising for decades, and we are on track for the highest year since racial data have been collected (sources: CBC, CTV). Islamophobic incidences and other hate crimes have been steadily increasing over the past decade (source: CBC).
The pandemic has also further revealed the hypocrisy of our province’s racist secularism law. In this province, it is legal for a public servant to wear a mask but not a hijab. In this province, it is legal to receive a governmental service wearing a mask, but not a niqab (source: CBC).
In this context it is not surprising to this group that racism occurs. Racism is in the fabric of our society. Police are not the solution to racism. They are part of the problem. But we as a community can be part of the solution.
As a coalition we do not have complete solutions. Solutions to racism in our community can only come through community conversations and actions, as well as institutional changes at a higher level that we can advocate for. We do have starting points however:
1. We can choose not to call the police on peaceful racialized people.
2. We can speak up when we see racism occurring.
This pandemic is also teaching us that we need to get over Canadian politeness. Too often it is an excuse not to have hard conversations. Just as we are learning to speak up about masking and physical distance, we must learn to speak up when we see racism happening in our community. There were bystanders to the woman being assaulted who did not speak up. We can teach ourselves to recognize these situations as they are happening and what we should do.
For change to happen we must acknowledge there is a problem. Even though over the last five years the number of hate groups has more than tripled in Canada, hate crimes are still hidden (source: NCCM). Researchers estimate that 80 to 85 per cent of hate crimes in Canada go unreported (source: CBC). MH took the hard first step and spoke up for all of us to hear. In our group, many of us have seen or experienced acts of racism or other discrimination, big and small, and have kept quiet. By having the courage to speak up, MH chose to become a leader in our community. We are so grateful to her for this.
3. We can look for non-punitive ways to move forward when someone in our community gets hurt. And we can help make hurt happen less.
Like we said, we are not interested in a boycott of any business because a boycott does not solve anything, nor does it address the root causes of this problem. It would further divide the community on an issue we should be united on. For us, this conversation begins with this one story, while understanding this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In our group, we are talking about what to do next and what would be useful events or actions in La Pêche. Community members are welcome to message our Facebook page with suggestions or requests for next steps.