Canadian Exceptionalism and Understanding Black Lives Matter
On January 27, 2017, the United States President signed Executive Order 13769, popularly known as the ‘Muslim ban’. The order, in effect, banned legal visa owners from seven muslim majority countries from entering the US. Legal residents were denied entry, families were unable to reunite and people wondered what was next.
Thankfully, the move was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and an emergency order stopped the ban from being implemented. Immediately, local groups in Canada organized actions in solidarity. One particular protest was held on February 4 by Black Lives Matter Toronto, with support from Idle No More, The Chinese Canadian National Council and No One Is Illegal. They demanded that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemn the Muslim ban (which continues to affect Muslim Canadians), repeal the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, and end the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.
Initially, it seemed like the Canadian government was about to take action. The Prime Minister’s office sent out a response on Twitter that received nearly half a million retweets. This message received widespread media coverage, and there was a global perception that Trudeau would condemn the Muslim ban.
However, this did not happen. At a hastily organized press conference the next day, Trudeau and his ministers said that they would not condemn the ban and that no additional actions would be taken to support refugees affected by the ban. This lack of action shocked many Canadians, especially communities and organizations that work directly with refugees.
During the February 4 protest, Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Yusra Khogali delivered a short speech in reference to a terrorist’s deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque.
*Quebec City openly practiced slavery as recently as the mid-1800s.
Yusra’s remarks led to a media backlash where pundits called for her resignation, condemned the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and called BLM “the next KKK”. Most articles chose to focus their attention on her comment about Trudeau being a “white supremacist terrorist”. Not one major article properly recognized or conveyed the context of her speech. Nor did they choose to actually evaluate her words. The media was not interested in her message; they were interested only in the way she delivered it.
Her message was straightforward. Trudeau's refusal to condemn the US President’s Islamophobic rhetoric reiterates the oppression and suffering of Muslim-Americans and Muslim-Canadians. In addition, the worldwide assumption that the Canadian government did openly oppose the ban reinforces the myth of Canadian exceptionalism, by which Canadians and onlookers believe that Canada and its values are superior to our neighbours to the south. This myth is extremely dangerous because it inhibits proper discussions around race and discrimination in our own country.
We conveniently forget about discriminatory legislation such as Bill C-51 (Anti-terrorism Act) or Bill S-7 (Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act). We blame tragedies like the terrorist attack in Quebec on divisive American politics while remaining willfully ignorant of our own toxic attitudes towards those considered outsiders. We also refuse to acknowledge that Canada was built on the exclusion and discrimination of groups such as Indigenous populations, Japanese communities, and black and Chinese immigrants.
Regardless of intentions, Trudeau’s inaction did nothing to help Muslim-Canadians. Rather, his initial misdirection damaged relationships between the government and civil society by making it easier for the general Canadian public to blame Canadian problems on the United States.
This frustration with our leadership is where Yusra’s comments originate. And in this context, her comments makes sense. As a society, we should seek to understand the perspectives of those calling for help rather than focusing on the inconveniences of their delivery. The key to solving a problem is recognizing that it exists.