Fatima Al-Roubaiai, an Arabic translator for South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services, stands outside the SOICS building. She says she is optimistic a year following the Quebec mosque shooting. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

Optimism in the Okanagan a year after mosque shooting

As the Jan. 29 anniversary of the mosque shooting approaches, optimism prevails in the Okanagan Muslim-Canadian community.

As the one-year anniversary of a horrific mosque shooting in Quebec approaches, Fatima Al-Roubaiai is optimistic about the position of the Muslim-Canadian community.

“I was here, and at the time my mom was visiting with me and staying with me, so we had quite a good conversation about what happened and said some prayers, of course, for the families, and what kind of implications it has on a broader scale,” she said of the night of the shooting.

The attack on Jan. 29, 2017 at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec left six dead and 19 others injured during evening prayers. The shooting spurred questions in media about multiculturalism in Canada, with many pushing back against the open and welcoming stereotype many Canadians celebrate.

Related: Quebec City’s outspoken talk-radio hosts face backlash after mosque shooting

But since the attack, dubbed a terror attack by both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Al-Roubaiai said she has seen some positivity in the community.

“There was a vigil that took place (in Penticton), and I remember I couldn’t make it, but the turnout was, from what I read, was really good,” she said.

“Considering the Muslim population in Penticton is fairly small, the support for learning about Islam and welcoming new Muslims to the community and helping them to feel at home here is really powerful, and it showed at this time last year.”

Al-Roubaiai, who immigrated to Canada from Kuwait at six months old, said she is seeing that support sustained in the community, not limited to the time surrounding tragedy.

Related: Are Trump policies fuelling racism in Canada?

“I think that in a lot of ways the effect that it’s had on the South Okanagan community is one that brings us closer together,” she said. “It’s unified us and banded us stronger towards understanding each other’s ways of life.”

That stronger understanding has shown, too, with Al-Roubaiai seeing more participation among Penticton and South Okanagan Muslims.

“They’re business owners and they’re students and their stand’s in the farmer’s market, and even one of the Syrian women entered the Soup Bowl last year,” she said, referring to a Penticton Art Gallery event in which restaurants submitted soups for a competition.

She added the community has gotten to a point where it is making a push to start up a South Okanagan chapter of the B.C. Muslim Association.

Related: Islamophobia on rise in Canada, Muslim leader tells vigil in Victoria

But despite Al-Roubaiai’s optimism, the most recent data from Statistics Canada, released in summer 2017, notes an increase in police-reported hate crimes in 2015. Those stats indicate an increase in race- and ethnicity-related hate crimes, as well as an increase in religion-related hate crimes.

In particular, while hate crimes directed at the Jewish community has decreased, it sits at the highest for religion-related hate crimes, but hate crimes directed at Muslims saw a fairly sharp increase from just shy of 100 in 2014 to more than 150 in 2015.

Asked about the growing prevalence of hate crimes and far-right groups like the 3 Percenters and Soldiers of Odin, Al-Roubaiai only seemed more encouraged to step up and challenge racism.

Related: MP shocked over killings at mosque

“First (I feel) sadness at that realization that that does happen here and that it’s surfacing. Then the next … thought that I have is usually ‘OK, well again, I can’t generalize that every person that I meet is going to have these thoughts, these feelings towards not just Muslims but other immigrants from around the world,’” she said.

“It makes me double down on how I have to model the behaviours that I’m looking for.”

But for the most part, Al-Roubaiai said she hasn’t experienced any outward racism in the Okanagan — more so the type that results from ignorance than malice that sits below the surface.

Related: Neighbours describe Quebec shooting suspect as quiet man who loved guns as a kid

She said that particularly came up in the 2015 election, when the niqab head covering for women and the so-called barbaric cultural practices hotline proposed by then-Conservative party leader Stephen Harper were prevalent, both of which were decried as racist by opponents.

Al-Roubaiai said she typically tries to limit how much she looks at online comments, knowing that is where she will often find some of the more vitriolic comments.

But she said the shooting has a presence in her mind in daily life.

“Before the shooting was slightly different than me walking around with her (mother) while she was here and wearing the hijab and after that,” she said. “I think it increased a lot of conversation and questioning that really brought about a lot of introspection and reflection towards what that means to us on a daily basis.”

The attacker, Alexandre Bissonnette, is set to stand trial in March.


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