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Terror abroad has revealed troubling hate here at home

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November 23, 2015

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Such is the nature of our hyper-connected planet that events seemingly worlds away from our day-to-day lives can reverberate in our neighbourhood. That is the power and promise of social media — it makes the world smaller.

At its best, our connectedness can make us more empathetic. The tiny body of Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach spurred Canadians to demand that we do more to protect refugees. Then we elected a federal government that made commitments to do just that and says it is ready to make good on those promises. We did this despite differences in our nationalities, circumstances, and religions.

The flip side, however, is that faraway events, like those in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria and Egypt, can embolden otherwise-marginal, hateful forces here at home. We have seen a troubling spike in anti-Muslim and racist violence in the past week — arson at a Peterborough mosque, the assault of a Muslim woman in Toronto, vandalism of a Hindu temple in Kitchener, and even an anonymous (and now thwarted) online threat to kill Muslims in Quebec.

In a statement I released on November 17, I reminded Ontarians that hatred and discrimination based on religion have no place in our province, and that we cannot fight extremism and hatred with more of the same. I noted that it was more important than ever, at times like this, to celebrate the best of Canada's human rights-based traditions of mutual respect, empathy, inclusion, and recognition of our shared humanity and individual dignity.

My statement was one among many from leaders across our country, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Kathleen Wynne, who urged Canadians to hold fast to our cherished ideals. Calgary's Mayor Nenshi, himself a Muslim, admitted that he was "shaken" by the anti-refugee sentiments expressed after the Paris attacks.

And yet, we continue to see more deeply-troubling incidents. Yesterday, a Muslim woman in Ottawa received an anonymous letter telling her that "Canada is no place for immigrants or terrorists. Go home." The woman told the media that the letter made her feel unsafe in her own home. On the Toronto subway yesterday, two Muslim women wearing hijab were accosted by three other passengers who made racist comments, implied they were terrorists, and pushed one of them. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim graffiti was scrawled in a GO train bathroom.

We need to be definitive in publicly condemning these acts so that everyone knows that they do not represent us, or our values as reflected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and provincial human rights legislation. Indeed, the Ontario Human Rights Code calls on us all to create "a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person so that each person feels a part of the community and able to contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community and the Province."

So let us pause and acknowledge that sometimes faraway acts can cause deeply troubling cracks in our collective identity that remind us that Islamophobia and racism are part of the lived experience of people here at home.

Despite our relative harmony and peace, there is still much work to do. The Ontario Human Rights Code urges the OHRC to use its voice to help reduce situations of "tension and conflict." So, let's commit to doing this hard work together and using our connectedness to express solidarity with victims of terror and our neighbours, here at home, who experience discrimination because of it.

Renu Mandhane, J.D., LL.M
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission


Read article in the Huffington Post Canada (11/20/2015)