Editorial: a history of hate crimes in Peterborough

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On Saturday, November 14th, Masjid Al- Salaam was set ablaze in an act of terrorism.

The day before, an attack on Paris shook the world and solidified our pre- conditioned idea of who a Terrorist is. It was an atmosphere reminiscent of 9/11 for Muslims everywhere.

I began my career at Arthur Newspaper discussing the lack of dialogue surrounding race at an ever- diversifying campus in Peterborough. This article is not meant to paint Peterborough as a hub of racism.

Rather, it hopes to draw attention to the fact that Peterborough has always dealt with the subject of discrimination, as well as to draw attention to the media bias surrounding the perspective of minorities.

The immediate reporting on the mosque fire saw the words ‘arson’ ‘alleged’ and ‘suspected’ introducing this incident as the violent hate crime that it was.

At first, no one used the words “hate crime.” Now, it is an “alleged” hate crime, despite the fact that the Mayor of Peterborough and the Peterborough Police Service are treating it as such- a hate crime.

When it happens to Muslims, why is it never called an act of terrorism? Is this word only reserved for when a Muslim is the one behind the action of hate and violence in the media? Arthur asked Professor Kenzu Abdella, President of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association, whether this incident of violence should be classified as terrorism.

“I think that’s a fair conclusion to make. With the timing of the incident, it all points towards that. I think the media is being quite cautious,” Abdella stated.

The attention the Muslim community has received in the aftermath of this event has gathered  social media and national celebrity. A successful fundraising campaign brought in over $100,000 from across the country and abroad, and quickly became the focal point of the media’s attention.

In a heartwarming show of solidarity, The Beth Israel Synagogue offered its space for Muslims to practice their daily prayer. A local church also offered the space for Friday (Jumu’ah) prayers, where it was so well attended that the space was packed. It is these incidents of positivity that shine through for the Muslims of Peterborough.

The media has focused on these success stories, and on the fact that hours before the fire, a birthday party for a baby was being held, and how if this incident had happened a few hours before, the outcome may have been more tragic.

This sensationalist approach ignores the deeper cause of why the incident at Al-Salaam took place to begin with. It  ignores the question as to why, out of all the places in Canada, was a mosque burned in Peterborough?

In a statement to Arthur,  MP Maryam Monsef had this to say about the fire:

“I believe what happened to the mosque in Peterborough was a despicable, ugly act, that in no way speaks for the people of Peterborough. Out of that darkness came a strong response from our community, whether it was our Mayor, our Prime Minister, the police or the Labour Council. The support from our community donors from across the country and even beyond our borders sends a very clear message to the individual(s) responsible for this ugly act- that your neighbours do not agree with you.”

In a statement to CBC, Mayor of Peterborough, Daryl Bennett, stated that the arson was “totally out of character” for the city.

While the rallying of support from everyone in Peterborough does reflect the warmer aspect of the town, many would argue that what happened on November 14th also represents an underbelly of darkness that lurks here.

In 2012, Peterborough ranked first in Canada in highest reported hate-crimes. Since then, Peterborough has dropped to fourth place in 2015, and this article hopes to point to this history, which desperately  needs to be part of this conversation.

In the summer of 1981, two Nigerian International Students were attacked outside the local Cineplex theatre with bear mace. Bystanders stood by and did nothing. This infamous event launched action from police and politicians that would change the way hate crimes were recorded and addressed in the Peterborough- Kawartha district.

In an article by the Peterborough Examiner published in 1982, journalist David Orfald writes,  “Media coverage of [the] beatings brought into the public eye a problem which had been brewing over a number of years. It was in response to this heightened awareness that Mayor Bob Barker set to the race relations committee in October 1981.”

In a discussion with the Community and Race Relations Committee (CRRC) about the mosque attack, Cáitlín Currie told  Arthur that she was, “shocked, but not surprised that something like this happened in Peterborough. There is a long history of racism in Peterborough, from the International Students being attacked to racism experienced on a daily basis.” The incident of racism in the summer of 1981 was what prompted the creation of the organization, according to CRRC’s website.

The intent of the fire was to cause terror to the Muslim community in Peterborough, as are the incidents of violence against Muslim women happening all across Canada in response to what happened in Paris. This is also a result of the ongoing Syrian Refugee crisis.

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Photos provided by Dr. Abdella. Edited by Samantha Moss

In response to this perspective, Dr. Abdella stated:

“If you look at it in this sense, then it certainly is terror to the community. We are shocked and worried about what happened. From that point of view it is definitely an act of terror. If this act was in reverse, people would have no problem concluding that this was an act of terror. From the bigger picture of people being aware of this issue, I think there is a lot more education to be done. This is certainly a terrorist action by people who are ignorant.”

Muslim women are being attacked, temples are being vandalized, and even women who are simply covering their heads to shield themselves from the cold are at risk to violent attacks that are becoming more frequent in news headlines.

The intent of these attacks is to cause fear and simply focusing on the positive outcomes of the event halts the dialogue that needs to be had about what is happening to minority groups in Canada.

“There’s a deep undercurrent of racism and discrimination everywhere- all over the world, all over Canada, including our community in Peterborough,” Monsef states, “but let me be clear about something. The hate crimes that occur in Peterborough, they are not greater in their incidents, or in their occurrence than other places across the province. In fact, one of the responsible approaches our police has taken, is keeping track of hate crimes committed in our community.

We are one of the very first, and continue to be one of the few, to use this method of recording and responding to hate crimes. I think that speaks volumes about the level of importance that decision makers including our police services place on crimes related to racism or discrimination or anything related to that oppressive framework. While racism, discrimination and oppression are the real issues that we as a society continue to work on, we’re nowhere more hateful than other communities, we just happen to be measuring it.”

Community Development Coordinator Peter Williams spoke to the measurement of hate crimes Peterborough Police use in tracking hate crimes that are reported.

“Peterborough was the first service in Ontario to create a ‘Hate Bias- Non Offence Incident’ protocol. It was created about eight years ago by Staff Sergeant John Lyons, in response to issues including ones involving International Students at Trent.

If  someone drove by and yelled slurs at you, you would report this. You would call 911, they would collect as much information as you could provide. It would then be determined if you wanted/needed to speak to an officer in person and what other steps could be taken…  If someone feels threatened, harassed, unsafe, they should call 911 and expect to be taken seriously.

What prompted John Lyons to create this instrument of measuring hate- based crimes, was that there were a number of incidents and a number of calls he was responding to. There was an escalation, and we changed the way we handled them eight years ago. There were not just incidents involving international students but the LGBTQ community as well.

We have a history of racism, homophobia and misogyny that we have to acknowledge, but how do we have a conversation about this to facilitate change?

Therein lies the challenge. This is not unique to Peterborough, it’s a global challenge. It’s systemic. Coming from a social justice background there’s a role for activists and a role for advocates and a whole bunch of roles in between.”

Professor Michael Allcott has a memory of these attacks that International Students faced in Peterborough, and said that what came of that was a positive dialogue between the students and police officers in dealing with racialized violence and incident reporting.

“We know that racism and xenophobia exist everywhere, and Peterborough is no exception. While the heinous act of one individual does not characterize our entire community, nor does the overwhelming support demonstrated by people who want to do right by others mean that our entire community is without prejudice…

We know that many international students will experience prejudice and even racism in our community; our goal is to provide each student a sense of belonging in an affirmative community so that those negative experiences will be discounted and less hurtful. And that is our experience: even students who have bad things happen to them will still tell us that Peterborough is their home and that they love this place.

Likewise, we want every international student to be comfortable knowing that TIP is here, and that we can support them through any challenging times, whether that means connecting them to campus resources or to, in the rare worst case, legal protection.

As relatively privileged members of a university community, most of us have the luxury of choosing the character of our community; we look to the broad support of the local mosque in a time of crisis because that is the decency we want for our community. And we know that there is a long path for us to fully realize that decency.”

In a defiant way of battling this difficult subject, law enforcement rose to the challenge to create ways to measure and track incidents of violence and hate.

The community witnessed this fire, and instead of othering the Muslim community as a separate entity, truly showed how colour of skin or difference of religion creates no lines when it comes to our community.

Peterborough demonstrated that we are one, and we stand together in prayer at the Synagogue or the Church with our fellow Muslim Canadians, and that the Muslim community isn’t separate from the Peterborough community.

In this movement, we have challenged the terrorist actions of not just what has occurred in Peterborough, but what is happening all over Canada.