How Montrealers are speaking out against Islamaphobia

Daybreak's Shari Okeke sits down with Montrealers who say they can no longer stay silent when they witness racial slurs or hateful comments

Deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque pushing Montrealers to confront Islamaphobia in person, online

Larissa Pickering says she used to avoid confrontation but since the election of Donald Trump and the recent attack on a Quebec mosque, she can no longer stay silent. (submitted by Larissa Pickering)

In the days since the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six men and injured 19 others, many Quebecers have been reflecting on how we react when we witness Islamaphobia, racism and hateful comments.

Some Montrealers are saying both the U.S. election and the attack on the mosque in Quebec less than two weeks ago have pushed them to start speaking out.

Larissa Pickering, who lives in Hudson and owns sleep clinics with several locations in and around Montreal, says she often hears flippant remarks or slurs "toward other races, toward Muslims, toward Jews.'" 

"I cannot sit back and listen to a racist slur or Islamaphobia, I can't listen to that anymore," Pickering said, adding that she has stayed silent in the past mainly to avoid confrontation.

"[And] I figured that we were safe enough. My society's safe enough ... these atrocious things can't happen here," she said.

"Now I see we aren't so safe and it's largely due to what happened in Quebec City and what's happening in the States and worldwide."

Confront with kindness

On the few occasions Pickering has spoken up in the past, it didn't turn out as she had hoped.

She says it's important to approach people in a kind and gentle way, without being patronizing.

"If you fight fire with fire and you call a person out on their bigotry or their ignorance ... it can escalate," she said.

Recently, a woman she plays tennis with made a negative remark about Muslims and immigrants.

Pickering decided to share a positive story about one of her own employees who is Muslim. 

Pickering told the woman at the tennis club Muslims "are real people like you and me — same loves, same fears, no difference."

She didn't manage to change the woman's mind but says she will continue to speak out.  

"It might fall on deaf ears but I feel like, how can I sit back? How can I sit back and not doing anything? And it kind of frightens me that people do," she said.

"We also have to show our children too that those racist slurs, that they're not acceptable."

'Beautiful, overwhelming'

Zahra Al-Mawlawi says she's touched that her colleagues have been speaking out against Islamaphobia since the deadly attack on a mosque in Quebec City January 30th.

Daybreak listener Zahra Al-Mawlawi contacted CBC Montreal to share her experience as a Canadian Muslim woman born in Toronto, who now lives in Montreal with her husband.

She says the discrimination she has faced in Quebec is mainly verbal, with people saying "go back to your home, you don't belong here," Al-Mawlawi said.

"I tell them 'I'm Canadian, I carry out my life same way you do  I work, I'm educated, I give back to society ... my beliefs are personal to me I'm not coming here and trying to force my beliefs on you,'" she said.

Al-Mawlawi has been touched by all the people who've spoken out against Islamaphobia since the attack on the mosque.

She said one colleagues in particular came forward, offering Al-Mawlawi support.

"She was telling me, 'You have no idea how many friends I'm going to start unfriending right now because of their views' and that was very powerful to me that she saw the value in sticking up for the victims, for the religion, and for me," she said.

Al-Mawlawi says she believes the shooting was an eye-opener for people around the world and she hopes those who are just starting to speak up against discrimination are determined to continue doing so, like her friend at work. 

"I found it very beautiful, overwhelming. I think she's a real positive influence that other people will definitely learn from."

Calling people out on Facebook

Jennifer Welch, lives in Montreal's Saint-Laurent borough but grew up in a rural area outside Windsor, Ont.

She says in recent years, largely through her work as a lactation consultant, she has learned a lot about different forms of discrimination. 

"I'm not somebody who's been subject to racism in my life because I'm white," she said.

"I wasn't always aware about what it was like for those people who don't have white skin or those who are coming from a different ethnic background," she said.

Jennifer Welch says she's challenging her contacts on Facebook these days, asking 'why are you saying this? I'm seeing racism here, I'm seeing bigotry here.' (Shari Okeke/CBC )

Since the mosque shooting, Welch has felt the need to speak out, particularly on social media.

"When I see my contacts on Facebook, for example, posting things that are in support of Trump or in support of his actions or have any hint of racism in them, I challenge them," she said.

"I say 'Hey tell me about this, why are you saying this? I'm seeing racism here, I'm seeing bigotry here,'" Welch said.

Welch says some of her contacts have remained steadfast in their views and she has dropped them from her friends list on Facebook.

She admits no one has said "you are right" but she is determined to continue challenging her contacts.

Welch says it may be more effective than attending large protests such as the women's rallies and marches which have taken place in Montreal and multiple cities around the world since inauguration day in the United States.

"I think it's easier to tune out a group than tune out somebody you actually have a contact with," she said.

"I think that one-on-one conversation is really important." 


Shari Okeke is writer/broadcaster for Daybreak on CBC Radio, and creator of Mic Drop, an award-winning CBC original podcast.