Ethnic community small, but should not be forgotten

First published:
September 26, 2001

In a local schoolyard last week, a group of Grade three students were overheard talking about the tragic events at the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. One said he was going to shoot the Muslims. Others wanted to bomb them. They were going to “get them”. A parent and teacher overheard and recoiled in horror, quickly correcting them.

Nobody would believe for a moment that an eight-year-old child could come up with those kinds of statements on their own. Like all behaviors, it is gathered from their surroundings. It is also not a big stretch of the imagination to believe that the children were merely parroting things they have heard at home or said by adults around them.

Leaders from around the world have worked hard since the catastrophe to ensure that their message is clear when it comes to who is being targeted for the war on terrorism.

American President George W. Bush was specific in his address to the joint congress last week in identifying the Muslim community and those who practice the Islamic faith as not being one and the same as the terrorist who committed the heinous attacks.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien was also equally blunt, urging police and courts to be tough on anyone who is convicted of violent reprisals against Muslims. Ontario Premier Mike Harris, when questioned by reporters, has also condemned recent violence in Ontario. While Bush and Chretien have literally stood beside representatives of the Muslim and Islamic communities in public, Harris has not. He should.

About one per cent of Ontario’s population is Islamic and about the same percentage is Arabic. Most of the community lives in concentrated areas between Mississauga and Hamilton, with another large community in near Markham. But there has not been any shortage in incidents of racist attacks in Ontario since Sept. 11.

A Hindu temple in Hamilton was firebombed. A Sikh temple in Mississauga was also a target. There have been numerous stories in the media about the fear Muslim’s feel in the wake of these and other assaults.

Here in Northumberland, we do not have a highly visible Muslim community. We enjoy an ethnically diverse population, but for the most part, we live in a white, Christian, Anglo Saxon area. We do not have any mosques or temples for the rednecks to demonstrate their ignorance. But it would seem evident from the schoolyard comments of children that we do not lack racists.

Canada has a long and proud history of multiculturalism. It is our heritage to welcome a large variety of people from countries around the world. Other than the aboriginal people, we are all refugees from one place or another who have made this country home. At first, it was those who could not make a decent life in France or England who settled on the lands along the St. Lawrence. Other Europeans followed those immigrants. Today, there are 75 different nationalities that live in Canada. We are a tolerant nation that is looked on with envy by other countries.

Unfortunately, we are blemished. The obvious example is the internment of thousands of Canadians during the Second World War. Occasionally, racist acts find their way into the news.

In a gut wrenching interview on CBC Metro Morning last week that was reprinted, in part, in the Toronto Star, Bill Wilson, whose wife was missing at the World Trade Centre, condemned attacks on Muslims. Despite his tragic circumstances, he found the compassionate understanding to differentiate between those responsible and those who are not.

“If my wife’s death is used as an excuse to go out and attack these people then she died for nothing,” he said.

This Thursday night at Cobourg Public Library, there will be a discussion on racism. While the idea is noble, no doubt those who perpetrate racism will not attend. Those adults who have filled the heads of innocent children with hate and violence will not be held responsible. But like roaches, they hide. The light of public scrutiny causes them to go deeper, ingesting their own bigotry and intolerance. As a community, we cannot ignore them or they will multiple.

But racism has many forms. Racial jokes and slurs are commonplace in daily conversation. Often, we do not say anything. Our silence only condones the racism.

The greatest aspiration for a civil society is tolerance and compassion. While we watch the racist behaviour of others throughout the world, we cannot sit by in our smugness and think that just because we live in Northumberland County, a rural enclave in Eastern Ontario, that we do not have a problem. We do. And, as the international efforts to wipe out terrorism continues, we will feel more pressure as various criminals from other ethnic backgrounds are confronted.

What is most important is that we do not confuse ethnicity with the crimes. When the Oklahoma bombing took place, nobody went out and beat up white, fundamentalist Christians or firebomb churches, even though some American anti-government groups are also extremely religious. We need to exercise the same discretion.

Municipal leaders also need to be outspoken against racism. In the same way international leaders are providing support to Muslims, those in Northumberland should do the same. While our ethnic community may be small, it does not mean it should be forgotten.

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