Every year since 2017, a collective I’m a part of has organized a vigil to remember the victims of the shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City. Each year, we’ve debated what message we want to stick to when speaking with journalists. We know we ultimately don’t have any control over these messages, but we still try. This year, we decided we wanted to highlight the experiences of Muslim youth in Quebec City — their hopes, fears and dreams. We wanted them to share what it has been like for them to grow up in this city, especially since the shooting. What we didn’t anticipate was that the federal government and the provincial government in Quebec would use this event to play off high-level politics against one another.
On January 26, the morning of our press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Amira Elghawaby would be Canada’s first special representative on combatting Islamophobia. For the party, the timing was perfect: they designated January 29 as a day to combat Islamophobia, and now, they were putting into place an ideal candidate to hold this new position. Trudeau, flanked by federal cabinet ministers, attended the vigil, as did Elghawaby. Meanwhile, this year marked the first time Quebec’s premier didn’t show up. The event was held inside the area where the shooting happened, making the absence of François Legault, premier and leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), feel even larger.
Over the years, the messages from speakers at this event have become focused on frustrations with how the Legault government has interacted with Muslim Quebecers. As such, it wasn’t too surprising that, contrary to what we planned as the focus, the messages speakers delivered consistently referenced the CAQ’s failures.
Ahmed Cheddadi, a survivor of the attack and a friend of mine, spoke at the press conference held before the vigil. He cried as he talked about his 15-year-old daughter who dreams of being a teacher when she grows up. But, because she plans to wear a hijab, Cheddadi said that she’s afraid she can’t make that happen in the province. Imagine: first you survive a shooting attack where you were targeted because of your religion, and now, your heart is breaking over the fact that your daughter’s religion may stop her from realizing her dreams. “You can always move to Ontario,” he says he told her. Hardly reassuring.
Bill 21 came up repeatedly in the speeches as the clearest example of how the CAQ has failed Muslims in Quebec, stoking the fires of Islamophobia in a province where far too many people still have never met a Muslim. There are other examples of the CAQ’s failures as well, such as how Legault claimed, just days after speaking at the 2018 vigil, that there’s no Islamophobia in Quebec. And, his government’s attack on taxi drivers also had an impact on those who attend the mosque, which has a parking lot often filled with cabs.
The pieces were in place for the news cycle on Monday morning to be about how, six years after the shooting, the community is frustrated that the CAQ has made things in the province worse, by stoking Islamophobia. What happened instead was that my feed was filled with news about a CAQ announcement: Minister Jean-François Roberge had called for Elghawaby to resign, and urged the government to remove her immediately if she did not. While I have no way of knowing if there was a connection between the expected news cycle and the announcement, I do know how crisis communications works.
Elghawaby’s alleged sin? These lines, which she co-wrote in an editorial for the Ottawa Citizen in 2019: “Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment. A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported the ban. ‘It’s mainly driven by the hijabs, and the other religious symbols are collateral damage,’ said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, in an interview with the Montreal Gazette.”
Elghawaby, who is a friend of mine, is now at the centre of a media swarm in Quebec that’s almost universally framing the situation in the same way as the CAQ. Indeed, reaction to the article after her appointment started last week, and so the CAQ knew they’d easily be able to control the message by calling for her resignation. The party moved a motion in the National Assembly on Tuesday to do just that, and it passed unanimously, with Québec solidaire’s 11 MNAs abstaining.
That day, former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair also wrote in the Montreal Gazette that Elghawaby’s article should disqualify her from the post. A day earlier, Le Journal de Montréal columnist Denise Bombardier alleged that Elghawaby is an “Islamist” and guilty of “Quebecophobia,” without explaining or attempting to justify either accusation.
Can all of this thinly veiled Islamophobia have really arisen because Elghawaby pointed out that Bill 21, legislation that has an objectively racist impact on Muslim women, is popular in Quebec? I wonder if the real anger is that the more Muslims are normalized as part of Quebec society, the more someone like Bombardier will shrivel up and collapse into a puddle of water on the floor? Because without that fear, how else will trash radio sell ads, or trash newspapers sell subscriptions? How will these white dinosaurs of Quebec’s post-René Lévesque years remain relevant?
While I’d guess that the CAQ would have called for the resignation of anyone appointed to this role, regardless of what they’ve said in the past, the fact that Elghawaby is an impressive advocate for social justice who also wears a hijab makes her an even bigger target. These reactions should have been foreseen by the PMO when they made this appointment.
We in Quebec have a great deal of work to do to fight against these racist narratives and attacks, but I also wonder what Trudeau will do to protect this new position and ensure that Elghawaby can succeed? Because while it’s one thing to demonize and harass Elghawaby into resigning, hanging her out to dry while your government tries to score political points off combating racism would be equally distressing.