Untold horror was visited to Beirut and Paris as ISIS attacks left dozens upon dozens dead. The tragedy affects all of us, and it may be our Muslims neighbours that feel it the most. There are Muslims throughout rural Alberta, and few can be more concerned about last week’s events than they are.
Prairie towns don’t get a lot of credit for diversity, but perhaps they should. Decades of immigration have filled our phone book with surnames from around the world. The stamp of each wave of immigration is significant and distinct. Alberta is young, and it’s easy to fall into a trap of believing that our recent ancestors were the first to settle it. Somehow, every wave of immigration since then is marked as an intruder, and a threat to way of life. Our way of life isn’t static, each generation of immigrants adds their character and distinctiveness to it. We forget the discrimination faced by the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Germans, the Chinese, the Jews, and all of the rest. Those people belong here now, and we hardly remember that they were hated. People come to work on farms and railroads, for mills, and oil, and to flee poverty, war, and religious intolerance… and gradually they all become a part of Alberta. Stephen Harper’s idea of old and new stock Canadians is a fantasy; the dividing line between old and new is meaningless.
New immigrant populations are typically not welcomed. Once Alberta advocated for federal restrictions on black immigration to Canada, the same kind of migrants that established communities like Amber Valley, when they fled even worse racism in America. Ukrainians were interred across the country during the first World War, and Japanese in the second. We hated the Germans, for having the war, and for losing it. We hated the Chinese when they were done building our railroads, and the migrants when they were working our farms. There is a long history of unpleasantness to immigrants here. Nor is our history with refugees as glorious as we’d like to pretend, alternately admitting and denying groups because of their race. We have prevented people from working, and forced them into poverty. Today many refugees and immigrants are detained, delayed, and held, and when they do make it inside Canada, our cities form ghettos for the cultures of poor immigrants.
Many of the migrants in the Athabasca area are from Pakistan, Lebanon, or Somalia, but could come from any of the dozens of predominantly Muslim countries around the world. Muslim populations in northern Alberta have existed for more than seventy years. Lac La Biche is famous for its mosque, and known for its hospitality to the Muslim community. That immigration was founded by government policy, before World War 1, to bring immigrants to work in rural areas to boost the agricultural sector. That mosque is one of the oldest in North America, and their presence in the community has done nothing but strengthen it. The Laurier Wheat Boom was about nation building; Canada needed those immigrants to work in the prairies, just liked they’d needed others before, and just as we bring in foreign workers and immigrants every year still. Immigration has waxed and waned, and continues to influence the culture and populations of rural towns. To this day, immigrant families from Muslim countries arrive to establish their new lives in Athabasca. We do not boast a very large Muslim population, but we still have one, and it is growing. We could look to Lac La Biche as an example of an integrated community.
Much like many immigrant populations of the past, Muslims are the target du jour of the media, of the small-minded, and of the scared. Scared people responded to the recent tragedy predictably, with hateful speech, and a serious of attacks across the western world targeting Muslims. Meanwhile, millions of refugees flee Syria, desperate for safe haven, and look toward our borders. With our recent change in government, Canada is going to welcome those refugees, and we may even see some here, in the Athabasca area.
Fear is not helpful. We need to be rational and understanding. ISIS’ primary targets are not white Christians, they’re after other Muslims. According to their ideology, a Muslim who does not swear fealty to the caliphate is an apostate and must be put to death. The purpose of the terror attack in Paris was to inflame Islamophobia, and to cause pain to those Muslims who have not joined ISIS. The result is a horrible choice – join ISIS, or deal with angry mobs who assume you’ve already joined. The more borders close, and the more bombs fall, the less options civilians in regions controlled by ISIS have; they join or die.
ISIS’ strategy preys on racism, and small towns are fertile ground for this kind of thinking. We need to remember our values, and to respond as an open community. We should welcome new arrivals in town and make them part of our Athabascan identity. To be that open community we have to be vigilant about racism, call out those who perpetuate it, and work hard to ensure that ‘we’ includes all of the people here, not just those who are lucky enough to be of the right religion, or skin colour.
The sense of community in a small town is a wonderful thing, but can be hostile and alienating to those that we don’t include. A new Muslim in town will find no mosque, few halal offerings for food, uncomprehending locals, and cold indifference from strangers. If we are a town who suspects, alienates, and excludes new arrivals on the basis of their skin colour, or perceived religious beliefs, we are a town on the wrong side of history. If we choose fear, we become a shameful footnote in Canadian history. We can be better than that.