In the wake of the murder of six men at a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, people in all parts of Canada are holding rallies, vigils and other actions to condemn this terrible crime. Many of these events have linked the mass murder to the political climate created by the new US government’s first steps, especially the executive order banning entry of travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries. (But not from Saudi Arabia, where the new President has significant business interests!)
The full details of the Quebec City accused killer’s background are already coming into focus. The timing of his actions seems likely to be connected with events in the United States, especially considering his expressions of support for anti-immigrant politicians like Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen. But much remains to be discovered about the shooter, who faces six charges of murder and other charges as well.
Many people in Canada have expressed shock and disbelief that such a tragedy could take place in this country. There is a common view that Canadians are less inclined to gun violence and racist hatred than residents of the United States. But a quick glance at our country’s history shows that Canada is not immune from these problems. Indeed, Canada was founded largely through the imposition of colonial violence against its original peoples, some of whom (the Beothuks of Newfoundland, for example) were literally exterminated by colonizers. From the 1600s onward, most of the lands which comprise the modern Canadian state were forcibly seized from the First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, often through the imposition of unfair treaties, but sometimes by the simple tactic of occupation. Most of present day British Columbia, in particular, was never ceded by First Nations to the British or to post-Confederation Canada; it was simply occupied by squatters, as First Nations people were jammed into small pieces of land. It took over a century of legal, political and moral resistance struggles for the First Nations of British Columbia to begin to overturn this illegal occupation, a de-colonization process which is just beginning to take effect.
One does not have to look far to discover other racist threads running through the carpet of Canadian history: the anti-Asian exclusion laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two; the terrible living and social conditions under which indigenous peoples live to this very day; the racist treatment of Afro-Canadian immigrants over the past two centuries; the virulent Islamophobia campaigns of recent years; the hate-mongering that is whipped up from time to time against new groups of immigrants. Common to all of these outbreaks of racism and xenophobia is the underlying ideology that Canada is “a white Christian country.”
This is not surprising, on one level. The Canadian state was mainly the creation of settler-capitalists from the present day British Isles and France, almost exclusively Christian in their religious faith. With some important exceptions, these settlers shared the view that this country was theirs for the taking. The idea of a “white man’s country” was built into the DNA of the Canadian state, even if the concept was flexible enough to accommodate later waves of European migrants. Similarly, Christianity (in its multiple forms) was considered the only “real” religion acceptable in Canada, with other faiths relegated to the status of curiosities or sometimes threats.
This is a long and complex story, which would be incomplete without reference to the growing understanding that such racist and exclusionist concepts run counter to the idea of human rights and equality for all, and to the fact that indigenous peoples have traditional and inherent rights which cannot simply be wiped out by government edicts. Over time, especially as the ethnic and cultural composition of the population shifted, the majority of Canadians came to reject the view that Canada is a “white Christian country.” Similarly, the majority view has become that women are not the property of men, and should have full legal and social equality, including reproductive rights, pay equity, etc.
But far from all. There are still large numbers of Canadians who believe that non-white immigrants are ‘stealing our jobs”, or that indigenous peoples should just “be like everyone else.” Without making over-generalizations, such ideas are often widespread in geographic areas where most of the population are of European descent. In central Alberta, where I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was exceedingly rare to meet non-Europeans, with the exception of some First Nations people. (I still remember vividly the experience of going to high school, where my chemistry teacher was the only South Asian resident in a town of 5,000. She loaned me books on history and politics which helped to open my eyes to the outside world.)
Racism and white supremacy are also common in urban centres as well, of course. The distribution of KKK leaflets in cities such as Richmond or Abbotsford, or the occasional upsurge in “white power” groups in Calgary or parts of Toronto, is well documented. Quebec City has also seen a rise of anti-immigrant and especially anti-Muslim incidents, sometimes linked to similar developments in France.
This is part of the background to the Quebec City mosque killings. Add to this toxic mix the element of Donald Trump’s vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric which encourages racist forces, and the result is a higher probability that bigotry will take the ugliest possible form: mass murder. It is not a coincidence that such killers often also hold deeply misogynist views, blaming women for allegedly depriving men of good jobs and educations.
There is no easy solution to this trend of white supremacist and misogynist violence, but it doesn’t help to make bewildered claims that Canadians are somehow “better” than Americans. To resist and turn back the terrible rise in hatred and violence, people of all backgrounds who reject bigotry must understand the history of Canada, and learn to stand together. We cannot sit quietly when our neighbours or co-workers or family members begin repeating racist mantras taken from Trump speeches or internet sites. When any of us are attacked – racialized communities, LGBTQ people, trade unionists, women, Muslims, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, social justice activists – we need to unite and reject every effort to sow divisions. When we are told that Canadian troops must be sent overseas to “liberate” people in other countries, we need to ask hard questions: what about oppressed and marginalized peoples here in Canada? Why are we waging wars in other countries for the benefit of big energy and resource corporations?
The tragedy in Quebec City was not the first mass murder in Canadian history, and sadly, it may not be the last. Our responsibility is to do everything possible to turn back the tide of racist violence, and to make our own government speak out against the actions of the new US administration, which is deliberately fanning the flames of hatred.