Canadian government statistics show a 253 per cent rise in the number of police-reported, anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2014
Hate crimes against Muslims in Canada on the rise
When countries across southern Europe and the United States refused entry to refugees fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere, Canada was one of very few to open its borders and embrace the new arrivals. Footage of prime minister Justin Trudeau handing over clothes and welcoming “home” the first Syrian refugees to land in Toronto from Beirut in December 2015 was broadcast around the world.
But since then, there's been a mounting backlash. Canadian government statistics show a 253 per cent rise in the number of police-reported, anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2014. Six worshippers were shot dead at a mosque in Quebec City on January 29, laying bare the extent to which anti-Muslim sentiment has exploded in Canada.
Shaila Kibria-Carter, 42, a mother of four, says she has lived with the xenophobia and racism for decades. Canadian born and raised, and the child of immigrants from Bangladesh, she has faced abuse ever since her days as a college student when a swastika was carved into her dormitory room door. Now, the Brampton, Ontario native is worried for her children, two of whom are in university and one in high school.
It is at high schools in the Peel municipality, which incorporates Brampton, that the controversy is brewing.
"Groups of people are going to these schools on Fridays — our day of prayer — to protest against Islam; they wear T-shirts with 'no Islam' written on them," she says.
The protesters are opposing the schools' facilitating of Friday prayers for Muslim students.
"We've gone to the police to ask them to help, and they said they'd talk to the schools, but unless a student makes a complaint [the police] said they can't do anything," says Ms Kibria-Carter. "These kids are born here, they consider themselves Canadian."
The mayor of Brampton has spoken of her frustration at the protests, saying she was disheartened "to see hatred and prejudice towards a single faith group”.
More than 2,700 kilometres west in the province of Alberta, scuffles last May between Syrian and Canadian students sparked anti-Muslim protests at the Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in the city of Red Deer, leading to police being dispatched. Several Syrian students were accused of whipping their colleagues, and a small group of protesters, including an anti-Muslim group called Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, converged outside the school to - in the words of one member - protect "Canadian culture" in schools.
The demonstrators were also criticising what they believed to be the unfair punishment meted out to Canadian students, though the school said all eight students involved were suspended.
It was the attack at the Quebec City mosque by university student Alexandre Bissonnette, Ms Kibria-Carter says, that shocked Canadian Muslims on an entirely unprecedented level, and echoes the shadow of white supremacist activity across the border in the US.
"That was a huge thing for us. That happened right after [US president] Trump's election. You look at the guy's [Bissonnette] social media posts, he is a Trump supporter," she says. "They were targeted because of their religion, my religion. It's painful to know people are being killed for being Muslim."
A car owned by the president of the cultural centre attached to the same mosque was destroyed in an arson attack outside his home last month, the latest in an increasing number of hate crimes directed at Muslims.
An attack in November 2015 badly damaged the only mosque in the town of Peterborough, Ontario used by around 1,000 worshippers and in Calgary, a mosque was damaged twice within a week last October, where attackers left behind a hateful letter and a burnt copy of the Quran.
Last March, the Canadian parliament was forced to respond to the rise in hate crimes by passing a non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia, and called on the government to recognise a "public climate of fear and hate". A parliamentary report on how to quell growing Islamophobia is slated for publication in November.
For Farheen Khan, who was subjected to a vicious hate crime assault in her hometown of Mississauga following Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks, Canada is not becoming less tolerant, because it may never have been so in the first place.
"I don't know that we as a society are seeing the emergence of this type of behaviour for the first time. I think it's been there, but now there's more of this language from people in positions of power," she says, referring to Mr Trump.
During a bid for public office during Canada's federal elections in 2015, Ms Khan said she was repeatedly subjected to "provocative questions" about her religion by sections of the media and in town hall meetings.
For the more than 48,000 Syrians resettled here, Canada remains the last chance at a new start. A number of recent arrivals from Syria refused to speak to The National about the specific incidents of racism they said they've experienced, but activists working closely with Syrian refugees say that for the overwhelming majority, Canada has so far been positive.
"Canada is definitely a safe haven for all refugees. We have a multicultural society with a lot of resources set up for newcomers," says Bayan Khatib, a native of Syria and the communications director at QED, a foundation supporting refugees and others in Oakville, Ontario.
"A lot suffer from PTSD and they need additional support [but] the beautiful things for Syrians arriving here is that they get permanent residency status straight away; they're not having to go through a system of courts and legal issues, as they are in Europe."