Views / Opinion

Shree Paradkar: A girl’s hijab story isn’t true. But we’d be fools to believe anti-Muslim hatred doesn’t exist in Canada

A false accusation of a hate crime is rare, but it most hurts communities reeling from the effect of those inflicting terrorism in the name of their religion.

A sign outside of Pauline Johnson Junior Public School is seen in Toronto on Monday, January 15, 2018. A Toronto police investigation has concluded that an incident reported by an 11-year-old girl who claimed her hijab was cut by a scissors-wielding man as she walked to school did not happen.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

A sign outside of Pauline Johnson Junior Public School is seen in Toronto on Monday, January 15, 2018. A Toronto police investigation has concluded that an incident reported by an 11-year-old girl who claimed her hijab was cut by a scissors-wielding man as she walked to school did not happen.

There was relief. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory expressed it.

For some of us, there was bewilderment.

Then, there was triumph — as evidenced by the gotcha gloating on the digital town squares of Twitter and Facebook — for those who somehow found an ideological victory in what could be a child’s lies.

All this follows the bizarre twist in a Toronto story that made international headlines last Friday: an 11-year-old girl alleging that a man ran up behind her, when she was on her way to school with her little brother, and cut her hijab.

Police, who were investigating the allegations as a possible hate crime, said Monday this did not happen.

Did not happen.

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There was so much detail at the Friday afternoon news conference. The man alleged to have committed the crime was described as young. Asian. He wore a hoodie. He was dressed in black. His gloves were brown. The scissors with which he cut her hijab had a blue handle. He had a moustache (in itself an uncommon sight: a moustachioed Asian with a hoodie.)

A mother in tears.

“I don’t know why he did that. It’s just not Canada.”

Ooh, that one was lapped up.

“It’s not Canada” adheres to the common narrative of discrimination being just a blip in the social fabric rather than a daily reality for many Canadians. But the incident was rightly condemned by people of various political stripes.

The girl became an instant poster child of Islamophobic excesses threatening to crack the face of Canada’s vaunted tolerance.

But on Monday, when police said the incident didn’t happen — they say this is based on evidence from interviews and surveillance footage — and that no charges were laid, some Canadians showed just how thin that veneer is. From the medieval gutters of Twitter arose the cry to “charge the kid with maximum punishment” or to “charge the mother.” This, from people who like the rest of us have no idea of the circumstances that led to this hoax. This, from people, who in the same breath, are decrying media for not getting all its facts first.

There is a difference between news that turns out to be false and fake news. The latter involves the deliberate spreading of misinformation.

In this case, the media appears to have followed standard procedure. A police release sought assistance in identifying a person accused of religion-based harassment. Journalists followed up by seeking quotes from the family in question. Certainly more questions need to be asked now to ascertain how this happened.

As the police said, a false accusation of a hate crime is rare. But it most hurts communities already reeling from the effect of those inflicting terrorism in the name of their religion.

It also undermines the fight against Islamophobia. At the best of times, those fighting to dismantle discrimination do so with their credibility constantly on the line. Whether the fight is against sexual assault, claiming rights to land or simply claiming humanhood, authority rests with those who benefit from the system — or at least those who lose nothing from it.

An incident like this gives people the ammunition to leverage the rare false report and use it to invalidate larger issues of anti-Muslim hate.

A newspaper column demanded the family apologize to Canada, implicit in that demand being “they” are not “one of us.” Would an 11-year-old white child be asked for such an apology?

Canada, as one of the world’s most fortunate countries, offers political stability, potential for comfortable lifestyle and a shot at equality. This does not make it bereft of identity-based hatred, prejudice and discrimination or, in this context, Islamophobia.

An Ontario’s Human Rights Commission survey last year found that more people reported harbouring “very negative” feelings about Muslims than about any other group.

An Angus Reid poll last year showed 46 per cent of Canadians surveyed perceive the presence of Muslims as “damaging” to society.

And in June last year, Statistics Canada said the number of police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslims in the country more than tripled between 2012 and 2015 from 45 to 159.

The data cannot be knocked down or wished away by one false story, but it won’t be for lack of trying by those unwilling to give up their boorish ideas.

It’s worth reminding all those rushing to say racism isn’t Canadian that qualities considered Canadian include compassion for children who make mistakes, no matter how publicly.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity issues. You can follow her @shreeparadkar

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