ODVV Interview: There is little awareness of...
Canada’s reputation as a cultural mosaic that enables the mingling of people from different backgrounds and pedigrees and empowers them to actualize their potentials has been a popular attraction for the dreamers aspiring to live more dignified lives in a country that values their capabilities and offers them opportunities for growth. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, in power since 2015, has been endeavoring to depict Canada as a welcoming nation that is receptive to skilled labor force and international students planning to transform their future in a multicultural, inspiring environment, and happy to shelter refugees fleeing persecution, war and insecurity at home.
But contrary to the conventional wisdom, Canada is beset by the plague of racism, often glossed over because the major media corporations tend to insinuate that the North American nation is impervious to the racial prejudices that blight the civilized West, including its neighboring United States. A July 2020 Ipsos poll conducted for the Global News found that nearly a third of Canadians, namely 28 percent of them, say they have experienced racism personally in the past year. Sixty percent of Canadians believe racism is a serious problem in their country.
The crushing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world economies have hardened the Canadian people’s attitudes toward minorities. Based on the results of a national survey by the McMaster University and Dynata Research, 20 percent of the respondents said they have developed more negative perceptions of migrants and only 22 percent of them said they felt immigration would be an essential component of the nation’s economic recovery post-COVID. At the same time, antipathy toward Muslims is also building up and the National Council of Canadian Muslims recorded 51 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2019 in the form of physical attacks, verbal abuse, hate propaganda, vandalism, threats and online assaults. Data for 2020 have not yet been made available.
Yasmin Jiwani is a professor of communication studies at Concordia University. She explores the intersectionality of race and gender in the context of media representation of violence against women and minorities. She has authored several journal articles and books on racial and gender discrimination and media narratives of racialized groups, including the 2006 book “Discourses of Denial: Mediations of Race, Gender, and Violence.”
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Jiwani on the problem of racism in the Canadian society, rising Islamophobic attitudes and the latent threat of white supremacist factions. The following is the transcript of the interview.
Q: More than one fourth of Canadians believe prejudice against Muslims has become more acceptable in the past five years. Statistical bodies have reported a surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes. Some experts have blamed the “Trump effect” for the intensification of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus in Canada. Do you expect the coming to power of Joe Biden will result in a positive change of attitudes to Muslims in Canada, as well?
A: Not immediately. It will take time before the anti-Muslim sentiment starts to decline in any significant way. We have to remember that Islamophobia was alive and well even before Trump. Recall the birthers movement around the time of Obama, or prior to that the strong anti-Muslim sentiments even prior to the events of 9/11.
Q: Canada has internationally earned the reputation of a country that recognizes religious and civil liberties. In the recent years, however, a series of legislation on the provincial and state level have cracked down on religious diversity and particularly targeted the Muslims, including the Bill 21 in Quebec restricting the wearing of religious symbols at workplace and the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, believed to have been primarily aimed at Muslims. Are you concerned that such measures will render the Canadian Muslims a suppressed and marginalized minority?
A: Yes, but it also depends on which province we are discussing. In Quebec, Islamophobia has been particularly virulent and will remain so in the coming decade. The very existence of Islam has served as a strategic scapegoat for Quebec nationalism, and is a derivative of what is also happening in France. In the rest of the country, Islamophobia competes with other forms of racism and its virulence depends on what is happening at a given point in time. With the pandemic, racist targeting has shifted to Asian bodies, but that doesn’t mean that other forms of racism like Islamophobia, anti-black and anti-indigenous racism have disappeared. They always there.
Q: In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, mosques in Canada have been on the receiving end of growing violence and arson attacks. In the most notable case, a terrorist shot dead 9 worshippers and wounded 19 others in a mass shooting at the Quebec mosque on 29 January 2017. Are mosques and Islamic centers receiving appropriate protection in Canada?
A: No, I don’t believe they are. My conversations with individuals who were members of the Grand Mosque in Quebec City lead me to believe that the police are negligent in their duties in protecting vulnerable Muslim communities.
Q: In 2015, around 80 to 100 white supremacist groups were promoting hatred against minorities in Canada. That number has ballooned to 300 today. Some human rights organizations in Canada, including Jewish and Christian organizations have warned white supremacists represent a national challenge for Canada and undermine the country’s integrity and security. Has the government taken effective steps to counter and contain them?
A: The warnings about the growing power and number of white supremacist organizations are now being taken more seriously than in the past. However, the revelation that members of these organizations have infiltrated the army and the police suggest a certain laissez faire attitude towards these organizations. There is scant attention paid to the power they wield in terms of media coverage as compared to the coverage that minorities receive if they commit similar acts of crime.
Q: Many researchers and communication scholars in Canada say media play an essential role in perpetuating stereotypes about Muslims, including that they are violent, alien with Canadian values, fundamentalist and resistant to integration. Do you believe the voice of the right-wing media that dehumanize Muslims is louder than the progressive, alternative media which are more balanced in their portrayal of minority issues, including Muslim affairs? Is it only Muslims who are subject to a biased coverage?
A: This question demands a more complicated and nuanced response. In the first place, there is an Islamophobic current that permeates most coverage of Muslims. In the right-wing press, it is overt and explicit. In the mainstream press, it tends to be covert and implicit, what Stuart Hall would call an inferential form of racism. In the latter case, the balance is achieved by positioning “moderate” Muslims as “good Muslims,” and in the process retrenching a binary that ideologically achieves a hegemonic goal. Good Muslims as Mahmood Mamdani has pointed out, are assimilated, fit in, articulate goals that are common to if not intelligible to members of the dominant society. “Bad Muslims” do not do the same. Since most of the media are white by and large, the representation of minoritized communities is always framed from that perspective. Muslims are not the only minorities subjected to such representations. Indigenous peoples and all people of color are subjected to this. It all depends where they are positioned on the hierarchy of race.
Q: Since 1990, more than 6 million immigrants have settled in Canada. Canada’s Liberal government has been trying to give the impression of a country that is hospitable and welcoming to people fleeing war, persecution and economic hardships at home and provides them with opportunities to make progress. Yet, not the entire lived experiences of migrants in Canada are rosy. In a recent Institute for Canadian Citizenship–Leger poll, 64 percent of new Canadians said they are concerned about the rise of discrimination against themselves. Numerous reports underline rampant discrimination against migrants in the job market. Can you give us a balanced picture?
A: I can’t provide a balanced picture but my colleagues who work in the area of race and economics have argued that Canada has a racialized hierarchical structure in the labor force. This is not new. It has been there for decades. I recall that when my family immigrated, we had a very difficult time because of the requirement for Canadian experience in the job market. Having just come from the United Kingdom, it was not enough that we had worked there, schooled there, and lived there. Without Canadian experience, finding jobs was difficult, especially since without a job, one couldn’t acquire any Canadian experience. This was more than 40 years ago. The situation now is even worse, and recent statistics from Quebec, for example, indicates that the racism is systemic. One study reported that when people sent in resumés with Muslim names, they were not even considered for the job. However, the same resumé sent with a French name, was immediately shortlisted or considered for an interview.
Q: Do you concur with this dominant perception in Canada that unlike the United States and parts of Europe, racism and discrimination don’t exist in this country?
A: Racism and discrimination definitely exist in Canada. However, the Canadian variant as I have argued in my own work, is of a different texture. In Quebec, it tends to be obvious, whereas in the rest of the country, that is English Canada, it tends to be more subtle, more hidden and more polite. The degree to which this is true is contingent on the economic class one belongs to, as well as the province that one resides in. If you are poor, then the racism is more overt, physically more violent and the exclusion is more intense. If you have economic security as in your own home, car, etc., then you are likely to be able to shield yourself from such intense violence. However, you still remain subject to exclusionary behaviors by others, and stigmatized in other ways. There is little awareness of the history of racism in Canada, although that is now slowly changing. But there is an incredible sense of amnesia here, amplified by the sheer size of the country, the small population overall, and the high degree of media concentration which results in a few corporations controlling what stories are told and the issues that need to be paid attention to.
By: Kourosh Ziabari