I am legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada. We are a non-profit human rights organization established in 1984 with a mandate to promote and protect the interests of Canadian Sikhs as well as to promote and advocate for the protection of human rights of all individuals, irrespective of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and social and economic status.
At the outset, I will say that our organization supports Motion 103 and believes that it is important to condemn Islamophobia, racism and discrimination in all forms. Given the sharp rise in violence and discrimination against Muslims, we feel that it is appropriate to identify Islamophobia by name as an issue of concern.
In 2015, M-630 condemning the rise in anti-Semitism was adopted unanimously. We believe there should be no issue with condemning the current rise in Islamophobia.
We have noted the opposition to this motion with concern, and believe that while the term Islamophobia should be clearly defined, reluctance to name and condemn anti-Muslim behavior is unacceptable. A refusal to address the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment may lead to the further marginalization and victimization of Muslims in Canada. We believe that the definition of Islamophobia proposed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission is valuable and we would encourage its adoption. Specifically, “racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear or acts of hostility directed towards individual Muslims or followers of Islam in general”
Oddly enough, the Sikh community finds itself at the forefront when experiencing Islamophobia as Sikhs are often the targets of mistaken identity attacks. The vast majority of these encounters, usually name-calling and taunting, go unreported. Members of my organization and many others in the Sikh community however refuse to address these incidents by declaring “we are not Muslims” because hatred and discrimination, whether due to mistaken identity or not, have no place in Canada.
The Sikh community in Canada has come a long way. Many have observed that the arc of history from the Komagata Maru incident in 1915 where we stood excluded as a community to where we are today is nothing less than remarkable. Even a generation ago, it seemed like a distant dream to see a Canada where practicing Sikhs, wearing their articles of faith, would be welcomed and accepted.
Despite the fact that Sikhs enjoy a higher profile in Canada than ever before in our history, incidents of discrimination continue to be reported on a regular basis. Every day, a major part of our work is to address incidents of discrimination and racism directed against members of the Sikh community. In the recent past we have seen incidents such as the vandalism of Sikh gurdwaras and schools. We have seen attacks on Sikh men who wear the turban. We have also seen repeated incidents of anti-Sikh postering and pamphlets in universities and neighbourhoods.
We also still see regular discrimination against Sikhs due their articles of faith, particularly the turban and the kirpan. In the past couple of weeks, I have dealt with a Sikh passenger being denied entry to a TTC bus because of his kirpan, Sikh truck drivers facing harassment and being told they won’t be served unless they wear a helmet at ports, even though other employees are not wearing helmets, and also a young Sikh man told by a DriveTest examiner he wouldn’t be given a driving test while wearing the kirpan.
We are finding that young Sikhs, particularly international students, are disproportionately the victims of these kinds of incidents of discrimination. Steps are needed to ensure that international students know their rights, and have the support to speak out when they face discrimination.
Sikhs in Quebec have faced some unique challenges when it comes to the Sikh physical identity. The French brand of secularism, or laïcité, that would see the public sphere stripped of all religious identifiers, is not compatible with the wearing of the Sikh articles of faith. Attempts to prohibit religious expression including the wearing of religious symbols or clothing such as the defunct “Charter of Values” or the recently passed Bill 62 in Quebec cause insecurity and have resulted in increased bias against visible religious minorities, including Sikhs. Secularism is important in that no religious group is favoured and the equality of all persons is guaranteed. But while our public sphere must remain religiously neutral, secularism does not require that religious expression be excluded. We must ensure that this equitable and open model of secularism is protected in Canada.
With respect to solutions and suggestions to address discrimination, we believe that statistics and numbers are critical tools.
We had heard that Sikh students in Peel Region faced challenges as a result of their Sikh identity. In 2011, we undertook our first survey of over 300 Peel students and found over 40 per cent reported being bullied because of their Sikh identity. This data resulted in our working more closely with the Peel District School Board and addressing the issues raised. In our 2016 survey of the about the same number of students, the number of students reporting bullying fell to 27 per cent. That’s a significant drop. Without the help of numbers and statistics, the scope of the problem could not have been identified and the work required would not have been as clear.
While in Canada we do have statistics with respect to hate crimes, we would echo the suggestion made by CIJA (Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) that the government should establish uniform, national guidelines and standards for the collection and handling of hate crime and hate incident data.
The government should also have human rights based data collected with respect to government bodies and services. The more discrete form of discrimination that we need to address is the lack of representation of minorities in boardrooms and institutions. We need to see how minorities are represented and have the numbers in order to properly address the underlying problems.
Finally, we would recommend that one of the best ways to combat prejudice and stereotypes is engagement. When we can engage and ask questions of our neighbours, we create relationships and combat intolerance. In September 2016 when “F your turban” posters were put up at the University of Alberta campus, our organization and other community partners put on an event called “Turban, eh?” where individuals curious about the turban could come and have one tied. The event was a huge success, and on Canada Day 2017, we held the event across Canada, including in Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Abbotsford with the support of the Community Foundations of Canada.
These events were also very successful and generated incredible good will and positive relationships. They created a positive and safe space for us to engage with others and for conversations to take place. Prejudice, discrimination and racism thrive on ignorance. The solution is to remove ignorance through engagement.
We would encourage the government to help create spaces and support events where we can engage with our neighbours of various backgrounds, cultures and faiths, ask questions and learn.
In conclusion, WSO supports all efforts aimed at combatting Islamophobia, discrimination and racism. We believe the tools suggested, namely statistics and opportunities to engage with others, will make a significant difference.
Convivium has already featured the testimonies of Dr. Andrew Bennett, Chair of Faith in Canada 150's Cabinet of Canadians, Shimon Fogel, CEO of CIJA, and Father Raymond J. de Souza, Editor in Chief of Convivium previously in this series.
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