CALGARY – As the country reflects on the way it treats many of the people who live here, a Calgary man who was the victim of an alleged racist road rage incident earlier this year feels Canada has work to do in addressing racism.
Tamer Abu Hassira was targeted in the incident, which was captured on video earlier this year. He says he was attacked for having a Palestinian flag on the back of his car.
Abu Hassira moved from Gaza to Canada three years ago, seeking safety. His wife and children arrived just this year.
In the video, Abu Hassira is seen trying to drive away as a pickup truck pulls up behind him. Abu Hassira is cut off and forced to stop. That’s when the man in the pickup gets out of his vehicle, bangs on Abu Hassira’s car window, and calls him derogatory names, including “terrorist” several times. He also tells the driver that he has a photo of Muhammad in his truck and laughs.
The video shows the man eventually walking away, tearing off a windshield wiper from the car before getting back into his truck.
Abu Hassira said before arriving in Canada, he spent time in the United States, where he feels Islamophobia is an even bigger problem. But, speaking through a translator, he says he feels Canada could get to that level, “if the Canadian government doesn’t change its policies and the government does not intervene.”
He says even a family was hit by a truck in London, Ont., killing four of the five people in an allegedly hate-motivated attack. He feels that could happen to him at any time.
“He does have this paranoia of this happening,” his translator explained.
Immigration consultant Reyad Abusalim also feels institutionalized racism exists in Canada, including when it comes to who it chooses to allow to immigrate here.
“They not only discriminate against age and sex and gender and whatever it may be, but they also discriminate against nationalities,” he said. “This is really well documented. There’s lots of discrimination in the immigration process, obviously.”
Abusalim, who is a Palestinian community leader in Calgary, says many Muslim people encounter Islamophobia in Canada early on — as early as elementary school. That, he says, is evidence of institutionalized racism.
“There’s definitely more racism and discrimination in the institutions starting from [the] first day in school,” said Abusalim, who grew up in Calgary.
“You can feel that from just from the first day of school when they asked me to pronounce [my] name and ask where you’re from and if they could give you a nickname, right?”
He says more questions from his peers came the first time they met his family.
“You know, at school, [they] meet your mother, and she’s wearing a hijab. And that look that she gets when she’s trying to register a child or the process that she has to go through to get her child registered at school … the treatment is always different.”
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He recalls needing to bring a note into class, explaining his dietary restrictions to the teacher.
“Having to present those letters at school sometimes was very embarrassing for a … six-year-old, five-year-old,” he said.
“There’s a lot of things that happened and a lot of people didn’t make it easy.”
Abusalim says schools in Canada have been improving lately, noting they are often more accommodating of dietary restrictions or religious clothing, like hijabs.
However, he says institutionalized racism stretches further than just the school system. He points to racist policies in recent years, such as Quebec’s Bill 21 and the federal niqab ban.
The Quebec secularism law prevents anyone working in the public sector, including teachers, police officers, and lawyers, from wearing any religious symbols, such as a hijab.
Canada’s niqab ban was created in 2011 and then reversed in 2016. While in effect, it forced people wearing any face coverings to reveal themselves while taking a citizenship oath.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who was the Canada’s citizenship and immigration minister at the time the federal law was created, backed the ban and continued to defend it when it was put before the courts in 2016. Kenney, however, recently denied supporting it.
“This was a very, very blatant Islamophobic government policy,” Abusalim said. “If that didn’t ignite everything that we see today, from 2015 to 2021, I don’t know what did. That’s my take on it.”
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Abusalim says in order for Canada to move forward — be it to eliminate Islamophobia or make amends for residential schools — governments need to take concrete action on hate and label hate crimes as domestic terrorism.
He also believes influential people need to be held to account for their roles in creating discriminatory policies and enabling racism.