Canadian Muslims: Are we ready for the challenges ahead?

by Amira Elghawaby

Published 30/04/15, the Link Canada

Some time ago, a distraught acquaintance phoned me up and asked me if I would be heading to Parliament Hill that day for a protest rally.

The phone call came just as federal politicians were bickering over how much time should be allotted to reviewing the controversial new anti-terror legislation proposed by the government. The legislation would grant sweeping new powers to security agencies while broadening definitions of terrorism which many civil groups fear could be used to clamp down on legitimate protest and could be used to chill speech.

For Canadian Muslims, the implications of the legislation are extremely worrisome as it is obvious that our communities would be a chief target. Who can blame us for reaching that conclusion? The Prime Minister and his various ministers freely conflate Islam, Muslims, their dress, and mosques, with the emerging security threat.

Back to the phone call — was this acquaintance phoning me to join a protest against this new legislation? Actually, no. She wanted me to join a protest rally in front of the federal government buildings to show opposition to the Ontario government’s new sex education curriculum.

I gently explained to the well-meaning mother of two that the federal government had nothing to do with the new curriculum, that the protest she had heard about was likely taking place at Queen’s Park in Toronto. I also offered suggestions for other ways she might try to raise her concerns about the curriculum that could be more constructive, including simply speaking to her school’s administration and parent council to see how parent concerns could be allayed. She seemed appreciative and we hung up.

Key Questions

It is instructive to note how quickly Canadian Muslims in Ontario reacted to the new sexual education curriculum as compared to reactions to the proposed anti-terror legislation. This difference speaks directly to several critical issues that we must grapple with: How civically engaged and adept are we as Canadian Muslims? How aware are we of the issues that impact our day to day, as well as our future? How strong is our support for the organizations aiming to promote and protect our own human rights and civil liberties?

In answering these questions, one must make general observations, simply because we do not have recent quantitative or qualitative data about Canadian Muslims and the issues they care about. Though the good news is that this will soon be remedied thanks to the Environics Institute’s recently announced upcoming poll. The 2015 survey will come almost a decade after the institute published its first instructive and widely-quoted 2006 poll about Canadian Muslims.

Such surveys are instrumental to credibly challenge sweeping generalizations about beliefs, integration, and attitudes. Yet those involved say that finding financial support for this updated poll, like other civic projects, has been challenging.

How civically engaged and adept are we as Canadian Muslims?

Canadian Muslims are looking forward, organizing promising initiatives such as Canadian Muslim Vote, and CivicMuslims, Toronto-based organizations aimed at promoting Canadian Muslim involvement in upcoming federal elections as well as promoting active involvement in wider society. In Montreal, the Silk Road Institute promotes cultural literacy. The Muslim Association of Canada’s youth groups participate in food banks, tree planting, MS Walks, and a host of other worthy initiatives. The Tessellate Institute, the Canadian Dawn Foundation, the Noor Cultural Centre, Think for Actions, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, among others, promote intellectual development and research, participation, and capacity.

Magazines, websites, and portals like the Muslim Link,,, and DawaNet, provide community linkages through storytelling and education. Conferences including Reviving the Islamic Spirit, I.LEAD, and ISNA’s, aim to galvanize our youth. Yet overall, there is a sense that few Canadian Muslims are regularly engaged or go beyond Muslim-based activities and initiatives, outside of their own work and school milieu. By and large, Canadian Muslims are still missing from wider and deeper participation in mainstream institutions as organized and effective citizens.

For example, few Canadian Muslim parents collectively participate in school councils, or take much interest in municipal, provincial, or federal politics. United around social justice goals, we can create a critical mass to work productively with fellow Canadians of a variety of faiths and backgrounds around common issues and concerns.

How aware are we of the issues that impact our day to day, as well as our futures?

Rallies against Bill C-51, the anti-terror legislation, were held across Canada in March and April. Reports from community activists suggest that very few Canadian Muslims were present, though there are pockets of Canadian Muslims who are deeply engaged. This overall reality is concerning because it means that likely few Canadian Muslims understand the legislation’s potential impacts, and that an issue like sex education, while also important, overshadows an issue that Canadian Muslims should be equally, if not more, concerned with.

When politicians visit our mosques and community centres to attract voters, it is incumbent on our communities to be aware of the issues. It isn’t enough to accept platitudes of goodwill and support. Our duty is to ask tough questions of our politicians and demand answers about the decisions they plan to make on our behalf. To do this, we must be educated and aware.

How strongly do we support organizations aiming to promote and protect our own human rights and civil liberties?

As the Canadian Muslim presence continues to grow in cities across Canada, the understandable priority has often been on building mosques. Our communities have generously donated hundreds of millions of dollars to this important mission. Yet due to financial drain, or lack of vision, or both, our commitment to building the institutions necessary to promote civic engagement, human rights, and civil liberties have been wanting. Compared to the United States, where well-staffed offices of American Muslim civil rights organizations are present in every major city, Canada’s reality is dismal.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims is currently the only national human rights and civil liberties organization in the country. We answer calls from across the country involving discrimination and human rights abuses, offering suggestions, advice, and guidance to Canadian Muslims who sometimes need up to a full year (or more) of support and follow-up. We have about forty ongoing cases of discrimination open at any given time, approximately 100 reported to us each year. We are the only organization collecting and keeping data on a variety of specific human rights complaints, including travel and border issues, that are relevant to our understanding of current trends affecting our communities.

We also supervise law students of all backgrounds who volunteer with us to gain valuable experience assisting in this work. Our achievements are many, including successfully litigating for the right of a Muslim woman to wear her hijab as a correctional officer in a provincial facility. We are also assisting in the recent, well-known cases including that of Ms. Rania El-Alloul, the Montreal woman who was asked to remove her hijab in order to be heard in court, as well as offering support to the families who recently won human rights complaints against a Calgary private school. There are many, many more cases that will not get the same attention, but which critically affect the lives of many Canadian Muslim families and individuals.

We are also called upon regularly to answer critical questions about Canadian Muslims and Islam in the media: on TV, in print, on the radio, and elsewhere. We write opinion editorials, letters to the editor, letters to politicians, as well as issue news releases on matters that affect Canadian Muslims. We monitor and compile an annual report on hate crimes and anti-Muslim statements and incidents.

We also monitor legislation and provide substantive feedback to legislators. We have appeared at parliamentary hearings and before the Supreme Court of Canada. We hold workshops and discussions on media engagement, Islamophobia, rights and responsibilities, youth engagement, and on many other relevant topics. We produce publications for educators, journalists, employers, and health care professionals on Islam and Muslims, and still need to produce many more for other sectors including social services, law enforcement agencies, and for parents on how to navigate the education system.

A Monumental Task

Serving over one million diverse Canadian Muslims, one would assume that this is an organization with a large staff and a few volunteers. The opposite is true. We have a miniscule staff, with many volunteers and supporters, without whom we couldn’t do this work. We use a triage system to meet the daily challenges which necessitates we sometimes be reactive, rather than focusing primarily on being proactive. For example, NCCM is already working on a civic engagement report to be released before the upcoming election, in concert and partnership with many others. Yet even finding the time to launch this important project is proving difficult.

Just the other day, an angry Canadian Muslim woman phoned us asking why NCCM wasn’t meeting with the Member of Parliament who made an offensive statement against Muslim women. I tried to explain that we simply didn’t have the time to even request a meeting, due to the demanding number of media calls that particular week, plus our work on Bill C-51, and several demanding cases, on top of our regular duties. The caller made it plain she was unimpressed and unsatisfied. Again, I found myself hanging up the phone and struggling against despondency.

We are in this together. When our institutions are strong, we are strong. When we are all civically engaged, fellow Canadians will take notice and respect our input. We will only be impactful with clear vision, targeted education, thoughtful participation, and unwavering commitment to building our capacity.