Settlement groups fighting anti-Muslim backlash in Kingston, Ont.

Officials in Kingston, Ont., are planning a large community meeting to head off anti-Muslim sentiment following last week's terrorism-related arrests.

Upset phone calls, online comments followed anti-terror raid

Doug Caldwell, the lawyer for a youth accused of terrorism charges, arrives at the courthouse in Kingston, Ont., on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

A small meeting of settlement organizations is scheduled in Kingston, Ont., today and plans are underway for a larger community gathering as officials work to head off anti-Muslim sentiment following last week's terrorism-related arrests.

Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson said the work being driven by community groups is feeding a feeling in the city that the arrests will "just unite us and help us push forward."

On Friday, Suche James was in a room of community leaders gathered at Kingston police headquarters to hammer out how the city was going to prevent backlash against the city's Muslim population and groups that sponsor refugees.

The equity consultant for the local Limestone District School Board had one thought: Luckily, we've done the work needed to make this a success.

Now, the plan they hatched is rolling out in the small city on the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

Police protection, public awareness campaigns

The response involves police protection for religious groups and organizations that help newcomers settle in the city, as well as public awareness campaigns and efforts to prevent potential bullying in the hallways of local schools.

"When things like this arise and your relationships are poor, you're in a whole heap of problems and that wasn't the case for us," said James.

Last week, the Mounties charged a youth, who cannot be identified, with knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity and with counselling someone to use an explosive or other lethal device to cause death or serious bodily injury.

A second person, who came to Canada as a refugee, was arrested but later released without charges in the same purported plot.

The city of about 124,000 has worked hard in recent years to bring in more immigrants to boost the local workforce and the historic town's economic potential.

Over the same time, there has been a revival of an inter-faith council, a municipal migration strategy, and a wildly successful multicultural festival.

RCMP Supt. Peter Lambertucci, left, answers questions from reporters as RCMP Chief Supt. Michael LeSage and Kingston Police Chief Antje McNeely look on during a press conference after RCMP charged a youth with terrorism in Kingston, Ont., on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Muslim population at about 3,000

A local umbrella group for immigration services — a network of about 75 organizations and employers — was recently involved in a campaign inviting Kingstonians to just say hello to someone they didn't know to make the city more welcoming to a diverse population.

"We're very fortunate that we have such strong partnerships and such a level of collaboration in our communities that I think sets us apart," said Wendy Vuyk, director of community health with the Kingston Community Health Centres, one of the organizations involved in the umbrella group.

The Muslim population has gone from around 300 in the 1990s to an estimated 3,000 today, said Mohamed Bayoumi, a longtime resident and member of the Islamic Society of Kingston.

Where once they were almost all professionals working at the city's post-secondary schools and other big institutions, Muslims in the city now run restaurants and shops frequented by locals, he said.

"We are part of the community at large. I think this sets the stage for an understanding among … a big sector of the Kingston community," Bayoumi said.

"The problem is there are some who know nothing about Muslims in the community and they may be hearing this and that and then making judgments and acting in a rash way — that is where we are concerned."

Phone calls, online comments worrying

By Monday, some anti-immigrant sentiments were being voiced — a nasty phone call to a refugee-welcoming group, online comments on news stories — which leaders hoped to cut off by having tough but positively framed conversations in classrooms and offices.

"You don't want any particular community to feel like they're trying to explain themselves or feel targeted on their own," James said.

Last year, Kingston's city hall hosted a well-attended open house to tout the work of local groups to welcome refugees from around the world, said Bronek Korczynski, who co-chaired a committee of local churches that sponsored Syrian refugees, including the one arrested and released without charges.

He said he hoped that the arrests won't dissuade people from trying to help more refugees immigrate to the city.

"This is the right thing to do and there might be some conversation that might need to be had to help people understand, but that's OK. It's a teachable moment," Korczynski said.