Canada is a vibrant multicultural society. The Great White North has become a shining example of a diverse democracy. It has established itself as a modern nation-state with a relatively altruistic, happy, optimistic population. But it also has a problem.
On Sunday, in the city of London in Ontario, four members of a Muslim family were killed in what police have described as a premeditated vehicle attack. Among those who died were two women (aged 74 and 44), a 46-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl. A nine-year-old boy is in hospital. Detective Superintendent Paul Waight said the victims were specifically targeted because of their 'Islamic faith'.
The attack comes four years after Canadian Muslims were targeted in an attack at a Quebec City mosque in 2017, which left six people dead. The perpetrator, former Royal Canadian army cadet Alexandre Bissonnette, was known to have far-right, white-nationalist, and anti-Muslim views.
These two attacks are heartbreaking tragedies for the Canadian Muslim population, which is predominantly based in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The latter, a French-speaking province and part of the Canadian multi-lingual federation, has attracted Muslim migrants from former French colonies in Africa, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and Guinea.
Muslims have a long and rich history in Canada. A total of 13 Muslims were officially recorded in the 1871 National Census – just four years after the 1867 confederation. The first Muslim organisation was registered in 1934 by Lebanese-origin immigrants living in Saskatchewan province. Fast forward to modern-day Canada and Islam is now the fastest-growing religion in the country. The majority of Canadian Muslims follow Sunni Islam, with notable Shi’ite and Ahmadiyya minorities also living in the country. So how do Canadian Muslims feel about their country and what do they value about it?
A 2016 study by the Environics Institute for Survey Research found that 83 per cent of Canadian Muslims reported being 'very proud' of their national identity (an increase of 10 percentage points since 2006). This was notably higher than the corresponding figure for Canadian non-Muslims: only 73 per cent of whom said they were 'very proud' of their national identity. Among Canadian Muslim respondents, 94 per cent said their sense of belonging to Canada was either very or generally strong, with nearly six in ten – 58 per cent – stating that their sense of belonging had become stronger over the last five years.
Canada’s democratic freedoms was cited as the greatest source of national pride for Canadian Muslims – especially among foreign-born respondents. Nearly nine in ten Canadian Muslims reported satisfaction with the country’s general direction, up eight percentage points from 2006. 84 per cent of Canadian Muslims believed their religious group was treated better in their own country when compared with the treatment of co-religionists living in other countries in the West. The 2016 findings suggested that Canadian Muslims were becoming more socio-politically integrated into their own national community.
However, one disturbing pattern which emerged from the 2016 study was the glaring differences between how Canadian Muslims perceive themselves, and how they were perceived by their non-Muslim compatriots. In the case of Canada’s Muslims, the survey revealed that they were much more likely to believe their co-religionists wish to adopt 'Canadian customs' (53 per cent) than to be distinct from broader Canadian society (17 per cent) – a net figure of 36 percentage points.
On the other hand, while 34 per cent of Canadian non-Muslims believe Muslims wish to adopt national customs, 43 per cent were of the view that Muslims want to remain as a distinct religious grouping in Canada – a net figure of minus nine percentage points. These are admittedly uncomfortable figures from a social solidarity perspective.
But while Canada may fare better than other multi-racial, religiously-diverse societies when it comes to matters of social cohesion, the country must guard against complacency.
Devastating events such as the suspected anti-Muslim terrorist attack last Sunday in Ontario threaten to undermine the progress Canada has made in cultivating positive community relations and inclusive forms of national belonging.
This is a critical moment for the Great White North.