Islamic conference ups security, changes programming to help people cope

A large Islamic conference in Ottawa increased police presence and changed the program to help people cope with the recent mass killings at mosques in New Zealand. 

Organizers say theme of perseverance meant even more after New Zealand attacks

Volunteers Nisrine Laouadi, left, and Aicha Mostefa, right, said the conference was a space for them to reflect on their feelings of the New Zealand mosque attacks. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

A large Islamic conference in Ottawa increased police presence and changed the program to help people cope with the recent mass killings at mosques in New Zealand. 

Organizers say almost every speech was changed to reflect on the attacks, and more police were brought in to make people feel safe. 

The I.Lead conference, attended by about 2,500 people, focuses on youth — and organizers said it was an opportunity for young people to ask questions and deal with their feelings about Friday's attack. 

The role of the conference became so much more important after what happened Friday, said Amy Awad, an organizer of the event. The theme, which was already chosen, was the art of perseverance.

Maryam Al-Mdallal, 13, said the conference's theme of perseverance was even more important in light of the attacks in New Zealand. (Radio-Canada)

"There's also I'm sure a little anxiety around the conference that may not have existed before. The tragedy in New Zealand really did shake people's sense of confidence. There's lots of people that are concerned about their own safety," said Awad. 

'Do not let Islamophobia define you'

But she said now is not a time to step back, but to step up.

Organizer Amy Awad is with the annual I.Lead conference. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

"Do not let Islamophobia define you … This is our time to define ourselves," she said.

"If there ever was a time where people needed to come together and support each other and discuss perseverance and how to overcome challenges, I think this is the time," said Awad. 

Maryam Al-Mdallal, 13, said she felt safe at the event, but that she was also grappling with the hate leveled at her community. 

"They don't know ... how we truly are. They just hate us for no reason," said Al-Mdallal. 

"The main topic is perseverance. It's a way to remind people that it's a very important trait that you should have," said Al-Mdallal. 

Politicians say they have to take action

"It's hard realizing the type of things that people are targeting towards Muslims," said Aicha Mostefa, 16, who was volunteering at the conference.

"It's kind of heartbreaking, but then again when we have events like this, it kind of just brings us together and I guess feel hurt together in a way, like you're not alone."

More politicians across different parties reached out to attend the conference after the attacks in New Zealand, to show solidarity, organizers said.

Organizers said thousands of people attended the I.Lead conference Saturday. (Raphael Tremblay/Radio-Canada)

Elected representatives for the area where the conference was held said policy makers have to be more vigilant about hate-speech and the impact and rules around social media.   

"It is hate and the intent of it is to spread hate," said John Fraser, MPP for Ottawa South and interim leader of Ontario's Liberal Party. "As politicians we have to stand up. We have to call it out for what it is."

"These are occurrences now that are happening frequently," said David McGuinty, MP for Ottawa South, who said there are five mosques in his riding. 

"We need to be very vigilant about choice of words and language. We need to call out language when it needs to be called out," he said. 

"I believe it's time for us now to take a close look at what passes for free dialogue."


Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.