Canadians were horrified by the terrorist attack on the Muslim community at Christchurch, New Zealand. Our own country has experienced similar violence, with the Quebec City Mosque shootings back in January 2017. While we might wish to believe Islamophobia and white nationalism are an isolated – or far off – problem, Kingston is not immune to the spread of this bigotry. Recently, there have been posters and graffiti promoting white nationalism and antisemitism around the city.
Eastern Ontario has a long history of entrenched racism, explains Dr. Barrington Walker, a professor at Queen’s University who specializes in race, immigration, and black Canadian history.
“This [prejudice] has been going on in this region for a long time… what with the histories of the KKK and the Orange Order in Eastern Ontario. This is also an area where slavery was practiced, and, of course, before all of that, Indigenous people were displaced,” Walker said.
“So there is not anything new here, in a sense, but it’s the product of the long history of settler colonialism… What is going on in Kingston is part of a much larger trend in Europe and its settler colonies as we have most recently witnessed on New Zealand.”
Targeted bigotry surfaced recently in Kingston on the morning of Friday, April 5th, with several instances of racist and antisemitic graffiti found on both Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College campuses, and at MP Mark Gerretsen’s office. While the vandalism specifically addressed Jewish, Indigenous, and Islamic people, the overarching racism and xenophobia is detrimental to the community as a whole.
Newcomers from Muslim countries are particularly vulnerable. Canada has accepted 40,000 refugees in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and many families settled in Kingston. Rasha Fahim, Settlement Coordinator for Syrian refugees at the Kingston Community Health Centre, said that, for the most part, Syrians have settled to their new home relatively well.
“[Kingstonians] are very welcoming… about 98 percent. My son went through something at the mall recently. Someone started yelling at him ‘go back to where you came from, you sand n*****!’ right in the middle of the mall, and pushed him… People will roll down their windows and throw a comment and walk away,” Fahim said.
The incidents tend to be isolated, but Fahim worries that Syrian refugees may not report the Islamophobia they experience.
“These families are scared to share their stories. They think it will cause problems and not secure their stay here… They’re very scared of the police. They think the police are not here to protect us or to serve us, but that they may harm us,” she expressed. Kingston Police, however, have taken steps to do community outreach to the Syrian refugee community to aid in building a relationship to that refugees may feel more comfortable coming forward with their experiences.
Farim believes the events in New Zealand earlier this year will have implications in Kingston.
“Everyone saw the video. It’ll encourage people… The way he did it will encourage people to do more of that, than less,” she said. The spectacle of the events can embolden others to target Muslim and vulnerable communities. It can normalize Islamophobia and violence.
There’s also some resentment from Kingstonians over the services offered to Syrian refugees to integrate into Canadian society, Farim explained.
“We’ll have a boot drive [fundraiser], and there’s a huge line-up and [people] push [Syrians] out of the line and tell them ‘We need this. Go back to where you came from, we were here first, why are you giving them priority?’” she said.
“We’re not, we’re just adding another layer of assistance to a community that needs it.”
Syrians have fled a protracted war and were displaced from their home country, often waiting years before finding a new home in Canada. They have to learn many new skills such as reading, writing, and speaking English, while navigating an entirely different culture.
These incidents, however, tend to be the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, Kingston has been very welcoming towards Syrian refugees, even standing with them in the face of hate. One man and his family experienced this on Kingston Transit.
“A Kingston resident yelled at [the Syrian man] ‘Go back to where you came from,’ and everybody else starting yelling at him, [asking] why he was talking to them like that. It’s heartening that Kingstonians are willing to stand up to vocal Islamophobia when its expressed in public,” Farim expressed.
The overall sentiment from community activists working with the Muslim community is that Kingston has been welcoming to newcomers. From the Islamic Society of Kingston, Dr. Mona Rahman’s experience from citizens has been “of support when devastating events like this happen.” Community groups, the police department, and all levels of government rallied around the Muslim community after the Christchurch terrorist attack. Even the arrests on terrorism-related charges by the RCMP in Kingston last January have not led to increased hatred directed to the Muslim community.
While it’s important to recognize the community’s efforts to help new Canadians feel at home, we must remain aware of the undercurrents of Islamophobia and white nationalism that exist in our city. It was only a few months ago when fliers were posted around Queen’s with the words “IT’S OK TO BE WHITE.” One incident of bigotry is one too many.