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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

Steve Collins: Hateful words often precede awful deeds

Yesterday's rally at the U.S. embassy shows that we want to be better than our worst impulses and our darkest history

Protesters create a human chain around the U.S. embassy in Ottawa during a noontime rally on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.

Ryan Tumilty / Metro

Protesters create a human chain around the U.S. embassy in Ottawa during a noontime rally on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.

After sustaining two attacks on different fronts, last week’s targeted travel ban imposed in the U.S., and Sunday’s mass murder at a Quebec City mosque, Ottawa’s Muslims might understandably be looking around for a friendly face.

The place to see a thousand or so of those was outside the U.S. embassy here yesterday, where demonstrators got together to resist the former outrage and mourn the latter.

Some ugly weeks, you can’t hear the chant, so obvious it shouldn’t even need saying, of “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here,” too many times. (Not to mention the Trump-skewering “Can’t build a wall! Hands too small!”)

The urge to build walls didn’t begin with President Trump, a truth to which the embassy itself bears witness. The downtown fortress, surrounded by metal fencing and security bollards, watched over by cameras and other surveillance gear, evokes to me the sort of Green Zone compound you’d erect in the capital of some war-wracked failed state, not a stable, democratic ally of a century and a half.

There’s a plaque, safely behind that fence to the memory of the victims of 9/11, which is proper, but no reminders of how immigrants made America (and Canada) great, or how very wrong both our nations have been every time they tried to shut people of a certain colour, creed or country out.

You don’t, after all, get many refugees from nice places. As Somali writer Warsan Shire’s poem, Home, read at yesterday’s rally, reminds, “you have to understand/that no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land.”

But here we go again.

“This past week has been a flurry of signatures on unlawful, punitive, discriminatory, bigoted executive orders that have launched a war on refugees and have formalized a policy of anti-Muslim discrimination in the U.S. government,” Amnesty International’s Alex Neve told the crowd.

He pointed out that anyone arriving at a Canada-U.S. border crossing would be denied a refugee claim here because we’ve designated our neighbour a “safe” country. Neve thinks it’s time to rethink this designation. 

It’s too early, and it may ultimately be impossible, to link official reinforcement of Islamophobia, like the American travel ban on nationals or dual nationals seven majority-Muslim countries, to individual hate like Sunday’s atrocity in Quebec. 

That didn’t stop a White House spokesperson, in the up-is-down, alternative fact manner to which we’re already growing accustomed, from bizarrely using the massacre as justification for that administration’s policies.

“It’s a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant, and why the president is taking steps to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to our nation’s safety and security,” Sean Spicer said, but it’s more likely the other way around. 

Even without the state’s help, too often the hateful word precedes the unspeakable deed. Last July, someone left a pig’s head at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Quebec. On Sunday night the haters brought death.

Ottawa, you’ll recall, had its own spate of hate graffiti on places of worship last fall. The young offender charged with these crimes is still awaiting trial. Hate speech is taken seriously because it’s so seldom the end of the conversation.

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