The Week's Conversations: Quebec Attack, Canada's Oldest Mosque, Arrival, Killings in the Philippines, Jason Kenney, Battle of Mosul, Bad and Boujee

A weekly conversation between friends.

Holding Canada to its Promise

The murder of six Muslim congregants of the Culturel Islamique de Québec in Quebec City by a young white man with xenophobic, anti-immigrant views challenges the narrative that Canadians like to tell themselves: that Canada is a country of freedom and prosperity, where one can practice their faith without the threat of violence.

And for the most part, what we think of ourselves is true. We are a tolerant and inclusive society that respects and accommodates difference. Our secular, multicultural, liberal democratic roots make it easy for people to live and be themselves, regardless of race, religion, sexuality, or ability. Social harmony is a product of understanding the linkage between you and your community’s right to live and thrive with the right of your neighbour and her community to do the same. We are all in this together.

Sunday’s attack taught us that we are not immune from the hate and violence that we often associate with the countries we fled from, and not the one we ended up in. There are dangerous consequences of the hate and bigotry that has long simmered in this country towards Muslims. Hate and bigotry that has been normalized, by vote-seeking politicians that play to our fears, by journalists unwilling to dive deeper than sound bites, and by casually racist or Islamophobic comments that find their way into our everyday discourse.

Canada, and the ideals it rests on, has always been dependent on those willing to hold it up to its promise. From the highest institutions of power to the broadsheets to the streets, it is incumbent on us to build, to agitate, and to push this country in the direction that respects our place and embodies our values. Sunday was a reminder that there is much more work to be done.

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Thinking About Canada's Oldest Mosque

The Al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton was the first mosque built in Canada, and among the first in North America. The building was designed by a Ukrainian-Canadian contractor named Mike Dreworth in a style resembling an Orthodox Church. When it was completed in 1938, there were only 700 Muslims living in Canada.

I know this bit of historical trivia because my great-grandmother, an immigrant from Greater Syria who came to Canada over 100 years ago, was one of the 32 founders of the original Al-Rashid Mosque.

I consider this connection profound, and, at the risk of sounding insufferably post-modern, it has had an important impact on the way I understand the concept of identity. As a non-Muslim, settler Canadian, whose roots have been uniquely twisted over the course of three generations, the fact that I can trace my ancestry to the very beginnings of Islam in Canada has been a consistent reminder of the fact that our country is not simply a conglomeration of distinct, discrete communities, but one defined by a whole mess of shared and interconnected experiences and histories.

For example, in the decades that followed the construction of the Al-Rashid Mosque, the Arab diaspora in Western Canada flourished, as did “a Canadianized version of Islam,” as my cousin Guy Saddy describes it in an article from 2008:

For these Edmonton Arabs, religion was a less significant bond than ethnicity. Intermarriage between Christians and Muslims (both Arab and not) was fairly common, and among the eight children in my father’s family only half married within the faith. My mother’s side was even less bound by tradition. Her father, a Lebanese Muslim, had married a Canadian-born woman of Scottish ancestry, and of the five children in her family only one, my mother, married a Muslim.
Because the Arab community was small, practices that emphasized similarities between Christians and Muslims were played up, and differences played down. The mosque functioned more as a community centre, a place where Arab youths would gather to dance the traditional dubke or, on occasion, the jitterbug. Things as seemingly unimportant as music and cuisine— fatiya and kibbeh, tabbouleh, and hummus—became bridges between two groups that were increasingly identifying as one.

Today, there are over 1 million Muslims living in Canada — a population made up of dozens of unique communities, who speak different languages, and who trace their origins back to various corners of the world. Some Muslims are keen to integrate into ‘mainstream society’. Others are more conservative. Together, they represent not a single demographic, but a great multitude of traditions. Some of these communities are new to Canada, others stretch back generations. Each has played a role in shaping the contours of our country.

The Al-Rashid Mosque, now a historically designated building preserved in Fort Edmonton Park, is a powerful reminder that diversity isn’t only about tolerance and accommodation, but about acknowledging our shared experiences. It’s about embracing the ways in which our history is formed by the perennial tension and interaction between different communities; by the ongoing effort to seek harmony and resolve contradictions between competing visions. This, to me, is the proper understanding of multiculturalism.

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Arrival's Brilliance

Arrival is one of the most conceptually brilliant and intricate films of the year. Through its beautiful cinematography and direction, the film explores themes such as time, narrative, language, and human life and agency in the context of first contact with extraterrestrial life.

Denis Villeneuve — the Canadian film maker behind Polytechnique, Incendies, Prisoners, and Sicario — directed Arrival.  Villeneuve broke out of the Quebec film scene with Inciendies, one of the best films to come out of Canada in recent decades, which is an adaptation of a play that chronicles a daughter and son uncovering their mother’s past in the middle eastern country she fled for Canada.

Arrival is also an adaptation. It’s based on the award-winning short story of acclaimed science fiction author Ted Chiang. Earlier this month, The New Yorker published a profile of Chiang that fittingly provides more questions than answers into him and his works.

Central to the plot of Arrival is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which theorized that there is a link between language and how we perceive the world. That the different structures of languages shape how speakers understand their surroundings and the world. In the film, the protagonist learns a language that is not communicated in a time-linear fashion, which in turn alters her perception of time.

For those who speak or understand multiple languages, the idea of language shaping your understanding of the world doesn’t seem novel. But what may be surprising is that this theory has been partially debunked, and forcefully criticized as being invented and a product of colonial eroticism (the Smithsonian Institution tackles the theory and its critiques, and is well worth a read).

Arrival is a film that will mesmerize you with its visuals and strong performances, while its themes will resonate with you well after watching it.

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How Language Discriminates: Trump's EO and Canada's Racist Migratory Past

Upon the resumption of USRAP admissions, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality. Where necessary and appropriate, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security shall recommend legislation to the President that would assist with such prioritization.

- “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” - Executive Order of President Donald J. Trump (Friday, January 27, 2017)

This portion of Donald Trump’s executive order on refugee resettlement received widespread condemnation for denying Muslim refugees entry to the United States. However, the policy doesn’t explicitly mention Muslims, or appear to discriminate against any one religion in particular. In reality, though, it’s an example of legislative drafting designed to mask the discriminatory intent of the state — a technique that formed the core of Canada’s racist migratory policies during the early 1900s.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Canada’s official policy around immigration reflected a conception of Canada that was racially White, and of Christian European heritage. The Canadian state passed a series of discriminatory migratory policies designed to achieve this purpose.

Asian migration was of particular concern. British Columbia had large Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian communities that were growing, which threatened the racial purity the Canadian state sought to achieve.

The Canadian government enacted taxes, sponsorship restrictions, and quotas to decrease and dissuade the number of migrants from China and Japan. However, migrants from the Indian subcontinent posed a unique challenge for legislative drafters.

Migrants from British India were subjects of the British Empire. As subjects of the British Empire, they were theoretically entitled to free movement within it, which included Canada. This forced the Canadian state to develop a policy that didn’t appear to specifically target migrants from the Indian subcontinent, but still prevented their entry.

What it came up with was the Continuous Journey Regulation, which prohibited the entry of persons to Canada who arrived “otherwise by continuous journey from the country of which they are native citizens and upon through tickets purchased in that country."

On its face, the regulation appeared neutral, and didn’t explicitly discriminate against South Asians. In reality, it effectively barred their entry. Most ships could not make the continuous journey from India to Canada at the time, and the government forced the only company that offered the service to suspend it. In the end, no migrant could make a continuous journey from India to Canada.

Measures like the Continuous Journey Regulation are examples of what I consider to be ‘adverse effects discrimination legislation’. Legislation that is neutral on its face, but discriminatory in its effect. This allows the state to claim that the aims of the policy are not discriminatory, as it impacts everyone, but in reality, affects a particular identity group or class of persons more severely than others.

Trump attempts to achieve the same through his Executive Order. It “prioritizes” religious minorities over refugees belonging to religious groups comprising the majority (a policy taken directly from the Harper Government). With most refugee source countries having a Muslim majority, this significantly curtails the ability of Muslim refugees to resettle in the United States. It also ignores the reasons of persecution, which is not exclusively faith group affiliation, but are context dependent and include a myriad of other factors, including ethnicity, political belief, sexuality, and other grounds. Ethical refugee resettlement decisions should be focused on need, not on religious affiliation.

However, unlike a century ago, Canadians and Americans are less likely to support these discriminatory migratory practices, and are willing to take to the polls, streets, and even airport terminals to ensure that our governments treat refugees with dignity, regardless of religious affiliation.

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Killings in the Philippines

A few weeks back, I mentioned an article written by Adrian Chen in The New Yorker on the rise of Rodrigo Duterte, the populist, boisterous President of the Philippines, and his brutal anti-drug campaign. This week, the number of Filipinos killed by Duterte’s campaign surpassed 7,000  — which amounts to about 30 murders a day since he took office in June of last year.

By themselves, these numbers are shocking. A closer look, however, reveals an even more disturbing picture — one characterized by extrajudicial killings, overcrowded prisons, and communities shattered. (Daniel Berehulak’s photo-essay on the killings is a must-read).

Indeed, Duterte has boldly upheld his vow to disregard human rights in his effort to rid the country of drug-related crime. The focus of his campaign has appeared to quickly shift from drug ‘pushers’ to drug users — typically poor, young men who use crystal meth to endure difficult work and long hours.

In a recent article, bluntly titled “Murderous Manila”, James Fenton describes in lurid detail the two types of killings that he witnessed as a nighttime crime reporter in the capital. The first type of killing, carried out by police officers, is referred to as the ‘buy-bust operation’:

“...in which the targeted criminal attempts to buy some drugs, only to find that he is dealing with undercover police. He panics and reaches for a weapon, a pistol perhaps or a kind of homemade shotgun. Before he can use it (so the familiar script reads) the police shoot him dead.”

As Duterte himself has implicitly admitted, guns are often placed at the scene of the crime.

The second type of killing, carried by ‘unidentified gunmen’, is referred to as an EJK, or an extrajudicial killing. These killings, which outnumber those carried out by police officers by a ratio of 2 to 1, are usually gruesome, usually public, and usually involve serious collateral damage. Fenton writes:

“The rules of the buy-bust may be a transparent fiction, but an EJK is an act of terrorism. Its anonymity is of the essence. Nobody knows who is organizing this program of killings, or who is carrying them out... Meanwhile the message to the public at large is: whatever happens, Duterte’s hand is in it; and there is no real distinction between a buy-bust and an EJK.”

It’s difficult to tell, at this point, how far the killings will go. Duterte remains very popular, and has ridden a wave of broad acquiescence. Unfortunately, his administration will likely be emboldened by the presidency Donald Trump, who has in recent weeks endorsed the violent campaign, and stated that Duterte is doing things ‘the right way’.

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Jason Kenney Should Come With a Warning Sign

Forgive this jaunt down memory lane, but it was just about two years ago when we got serious about putting together a project to document the changes of The Harper Decade. This week, we have watched Trump issue executive order after executive order, along with various other actions, that are all strikingly reminiscent of Harper’s policies or campaign promises. Gagging federal scientists and burying of evidence of climate change? Been there. Refusing to fund global abortion services? Been there. Dismissal and hampering of the press? Been there (and still there, arguably). Permanent campaign and wedge politics (not new to American politics but this is next level)? Been there.

And now, we see Canadians holding themselves up as paragons of virtue for welcoming refugees and immigrants.

Even Jason Kenney is garnering praise for sharing a touching personal story about an immigrant.

Excuse me for shouting incredulously, but JASON KENNEY?! Jason. Kenney. Jason Kenney, who, along with Stephen Harper and his government, are responsible for some of the most exclusionary and harmful immigration policies and anti-Muslim sentiments in the past decade? Jason Kenney, who declared countries with the most refugee applicants “safe,” and used this as a basis for denying their claims (this is still in place, despite a promise by Trudeau to repeal it). Jason Kenney, who tried to deny refugee claimants healthcare. Jason Kenney, who took out billboard advertisements in Europe to taunt persecuted Roma refugees that Canada would not accept their claims. Jason Kenney, who declared a niqab ban. Jason Kenney, whose government first proposed policies that would effectively bar Canada from accepting Muslim refugees (a policy that was adopted by Trump, and is the current source of much of the international condemnation).

Many of the measures announced by Trump were first proposed and implemented by Kenney in Canada. However, our media seems to have developed a case of collective amnesia, publishing pieces praising Kenney’s compassion towards refugees that are ignorant to the callousness with which he and his government treated refugees and refugee claimants for over a decade.  

We fully agree, diversity is a great Canadian strength. We have always been, and will continue to be defenders of multiculturalism, tolerance and open immigration policies. However, Canada can do more, and is less than two years removed from a government that was openly hostile towards Muslims and committed to making it more difficult for refugees and immigrants to come to Canada. As such, we would do well to support our American friends who are protesting this ban, continue to speak out in our own country against those like Leitch who would impose similar restrictions, and to never, ever praise Kenney for a politically opportune moderate stance on immigration, as his history shows he has nothing but contempt for those who seek refuge and welcome in our country.

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Mosul: the Largest Urban Military Operation Since WWII

Back in October, as the battle for Mosul began, I started reading the Mosul Eye, from which I learned more about the city, its people, and the occupation by ISIL.

Mosul has for centuries been an ethnically and religiously diverse city, one that has historically governed itself more as a city-state with close ties to Aleppo in Syria, than as a part of what is now Iraq. Unfortunately, due to its proximity to oil, when the British and French proceeded to divide their colonial spoils in the early 20th century, Mosul was lumped into Iraq. Later, under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Mosul would lose its independence and see its social structure eroded by isolationism and divisionist politics. Mosul Eye argues that this is what ultimately left the city vulnerable to attack by ISIL, which gained full control of the city of 1.8 million people in June 2014, and has resulted in the displacement of over 500,000 Mosulis.

Today, Mosul is the last Iraqi city still occupied by ISIL, and it remains a major supply route for ISIL in Syria. As a result of years of occupation, Mosul is incredibly well fortified, and is still inhabited by over a million civilians, making it a difficult target for air raids or ground attempts. However, in mid-October of 2016, a joint operation was launched by the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga and a Shia paramilitary force, with backing from US, British and French special forces, to retake the city.

In November and December, as the correspondent of the Mosul Eye optimistically discussed the battle for Mosul, fled the city, and then began publishing reports from different neighborhoods as they were slowly and systematically cleared, it faded from my attention. I assumed it would be resolved and I was engaged in reports on the Syrian government’s final assault on Aleppo.

So it is in shame that I point you to this compelling LRB article by Patrick Cockburn on misinformation regarding the situations in Aleppo and Mosul. “[B]y presenting the siege of East Aleppo as the great humanitarian tragedy of 2016, [foreign leaders and the international media] diverted attention from an even greater tragedy that was taking shape three hundred miles to the east in northern Iraq.”

The battle for Mosul continues, affecting approximately 1.2 million Mosulis. Cockburn writes:

“[O]n 11 January, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said the city was ‘witnessing one of the largest urban military operations since the Second World War’. She warned that the intensity of the fighting was such that 47 per cent of those treated for gunshot wounds were civilians, far more than in other sieges of which the UN had experience. The nearest parallel to what is happening in Mosul would be the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, in which 10,000 people were killed, or the siege of Grozny in 1994-95, in which an estimated 5,500 civilians died. But the loss of life in Mosul could be much heavier than in either of those cities because it is defended by a movement which will not negotiate or surrender and kills anybody who shows any sign of wavering.”

Most damningly, Cockburn points out the differences in the way the media approaches civilian deaths due to airstrikes:

“When Russia or Syria targets buildings in East Aleppo, Russia or Syria is blamed: the rebels have nothing to do with it. Heartrending images from East Aleppo showing dead, wounded and shellshocked children were broadcast around the world. But when, on 12 January, a video was posted online showing people searching for bodies in the ruins of a building in Mosul that appeared to have been destroyed by a US-led coalition airstrike, no Western television station carried the pictures. ‘We have got out 14 bodies so far,’ a haggard-looking man facing the camera says, ‘and there are still nine under the rubble.’”

Further reading: The Mosul Dam “If the dam ruptured, it would likely cause a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, loosing a wave as high as a hundred feet... Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours...; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad.”

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Bad and Boujee: Best Song Ever

It was released way back in October, but the Migos' smash hit “Bad and Boujee” is only now sitting atop the Billboard chart — an unlikely feat in an era of hip hop largely dominated by a small group of superstars. This certainly has something to do with Donald Glover’s recent shout-out at the Golden Globes, where he referred to the track as “the best song ever”. The song’s success was also buoyed by an endless stream of memes on Twitter and Instagram.

But real credit belongs to Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff, who, despite an incredibly long string of mediocre releases (including 5 full-length projects in 2015 alone), have worked tirelessly to refine their signature sound. “We’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing, making the same music,” [Quavo] said “I feel like the world just caught up.”

Credit also belongs to the label executives at Quality Control Music, who sent Migos to work the Atlanta strip club scene, to ‘get the vibe of the people’: “When you see girls on that stage singing the words, you know you got a hit on your hands.”

Migos’ new album, Culture, is out now.

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Links from the Week's Thread

If you haven’t heard of Joe Wai, you’re likely familiar with this work (especially if you’re from Vancouver). He’s the architect behind iconic spaces in Vancouver, including Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Skwachays Lodge, and was a key figure in stopping the bulldozing of Chinatown in the 1970s. Wai was a city builder who left an indelible mark on Vancouver. Wai passed away earlier this month, and the Globe & Mail published a fitting tribute to his life and contribution.

A 32-track playlist from artists and immigrants on Trump’s banned country list.

The Broadcast is a new podcast that explores women and politics in Alberta. Created by Edmonton-based journalists Trisha Estabrooks and Alex Zabjek, the podcast has already tackled a range of interesting topics: assessing Nellie McClung’s legacy through the lens of contemporary feminism, why there should be statues of Bertha Wilson in every city, Danielle Smith and Katherine O’Neil on how female politicians are defined, and Sandra Jansen’s experience under two female Premiers (Premiers Redford and Notley).

Wall Street Journal has juxtaposed content from conservative and liberal Facebook feeds in an attempt to understand the other’s echo-chambers. Shared posts “must have at least 100 shares, and come from sources with at least 100,000 followers.”

Three-Ingredient Stovetop Mac & Cheese for another depressing month of winter (where you hate leaving the house for the grocery store).

A feminist take on Little Women's Meg

The New York Times takes next step on a Canadian expansion and hires a new Toronto bureau chief.

New music from Mac DeMarco: "My Old Man" and "This Old Dog."

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Amy Sanderson01/02/17