Bob Brehl writes that the best way to tackle bigotry and the rising Islamophobia. CNS photo/Dario Ayala, Reuters

Comment: Education is the best way to tackle bigotry

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  • March 31, 2017

“What good can this wretched intolerance and religious bigotry effect?”

That question was posed by Toronto Archbishop John Walsh in June 1893, when the Protestant city fathers withheld public money to St. Michael’s Hospital based on untruths spread about the qualifications of Sisters of St. Joseph nuns running the facility.

The Orange Lodge wielded plenty of power in those days and for decades to come. My mother, who grew up on the Irish Danforth during the 1930s and 1940s, told me many stories of religious bigotry in those days. To be honest, the bigots were on both sides.

There’s really nothing new when it comes to religious bigotry, unfortunately.

In the 1980s, while at university, I remember going to a downtown Toronto racquet club with a Jewish classmate to play squash and he was greeted as “Mr. McMillan” by staff and other members. In disbelief, I asked him why he didn’t use his real name. “It’s just easier this way,” he told me.

In the 1990s, another Jewish friend joined a private Toronto golf club and his religion was brought up by the admittance committee.

“Obviously, they approved my membership because we’re here today playing golf, but when I was told there were a couple of guys who mentioned the Jewish thing I was a little surprised, although maybe I shouldn’t be,” he told me as we walked the fairways.

As Jesus said, “You will always have the poor among you” (Matthew 26:11), but it seems the same can be said about bigots: they always seem to be among us. And whereas He asks us to comfort and speak up for the poor, surely, He would want us to educate the ignorant and mitigate the effects of their bigotry.

That’s exactly what Archbishop Walsh did almost 125 years ago when his well-reasoned arguments convinced the city fathers to change their minds within a week and return taxpayers’ money to St. Michael’s Hospital.

“We must aid (St. Michael’s Hospital) by our sympathy, our encouragement and by monetary contributions,” Walsh wrote in a letter published in The Register that was read from the pulpit in every Toronto parish. “We must enable it to keep its doors wide open for the sick poor, whether Catholic or Protestant. No child of misfortune of any creed or colour must ever be refused its sacred hospitality when suffering from the pangs of disease.”

Which brings us to the controversial M-103 — the so-called anti-Islamophobia motion — passed in the House of Commons March 23 after being brought forward by Mississauga Liberal MP Iqra Khalid.

Some feel it will restrict freedom of speech and could be the thin edge of the wedge towards sharia law in Canada. Khalid counters by calling such arguments “outrageous” and vowing to oppose any motion or law such as sharia that negatively impacts multicultural Canada.

Khalid’s motion calls on Ottawa to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination,” collect hate-crime data, study the issue further and report back to the House of Commons within eight months with recommendations. Worthy goals.

But it feels like there is a rise of intolerance and hate crimes in general. Just do a Google search with the words “Jews” and “Swastikas” and you’ll find many reports of vandalized synagogues and cemeteries recently.

Indeed, anti-Muslim incidents are on the rise in Canada, according to the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), from verbal insults to horrific crimes like the gunman opening fire inside the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec during evening prayers on Jan. 29 and killing six people. The NCCM tracks such incidents and says they have increased from 12 in 2013 to 65 in 2016 and 21 already in the first three months of 2017.

But does Khalid’s motion fan the flames of intolerance by singling out Islam and giving the perception that it is in a category all to itself? Sections 318, 319 and 320 of the Criminal Code of Canada already deal with hate promotion offences. M-103 could lead to legislation if the committee studying the issue returns with such a recommendation. Do we really need one special category for Muslims?

Many of these anti-Islam incidents are made from a position of ignorance and fear; like a man in Milton, Ont., on March 4 who yelled at a woman in a head scarf to “go back to your country.” Let’s be blunt, that guy is ignorant and he may have been spurred into his slurs because of media attention over Khalid’s motion, whether it gives Muslims special treatment or not.

Educating others about Islamophobic behaviour may help to reduce ignorance and uncover personal prejudices people hold. By uncovering these prejudices and teaching people to remain cognizant of these throughout everyday life, it may decrease the chances of hate crimes or prejudicial behaviours occurring.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca, or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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