Hundreds mourn Christchurch mass shooting victims at Toronto city hall vigil

Speakers fiercely condemned Islamophobia and connected hateful violence with hateful speech, as hundreds in Toronto honoured the victims of a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Outpouring of grief and solidarity as police tell public to expect more patrols around GTA mosques

People gathered on a rainy Friday evening in Toronto to honour the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings. (Adrian Cheung/CBC)

Speakers fiercely condemned Islamophobia and connected hateful violence with hateful speech, as hundreds in Toronto honoured the victims of a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Despite the cold spring rain, hundreds turned up at Nathan Phillips Square to remember the New Zealand victims, with Canada's own mosque shooting in Quebec City still fresh in mind for many.

Authorities now say 49 were killed and 42 injured in the Christchurch attack, which targeted two mosques.

Our communities are "shaken, but not broken," said Samiya Abdi, with the Toronto Muslims Group at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

Rhetoric of anti-Muslim hate and bigotry is growing, she told CBC Toronto, and many leaders stay silent as people share hateful messages.

"Literally, Islamophobia kills," said Abdi, but noted the many people gathering at mosques on Friday.

"There is a deliberate action to make us fear, to make us hide," she said. "But ... we're here to stay. We're not going anywhere."

Samiya Abdi, with the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said communities are shaken 'but not broken.' (CBC)

The massacre in Christchurch was devastating, but "it's not shocking to us," said Nadia Hasan, deputy director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, where their everyday work involves dealing with Islamophobia.

The victims were just regular people going about their lives, Hasan said, "and that's exactly what the killer didn't see."

"He didn't see them as human beings with every right to live," she said, brushing back tears. "Enough is enough."

People stood in a rainy Nathan Phillips Square, paying respect to the victims in New Zealand. (Adrian Cheung/CBC)

Shareefa Sayyid, who attended the vigil, said said her family members were in the mosque during the Quebec City shooting.

"To see it repeat's heartbreaking," she said, after choking back tears.

'Never, ever normalize this hate'

Ahmed Hussen, Canada's Immigration Minister says the discourse of fear and division needs to end.

"We can never, ever normalize this hate," he said. "We can never try to repackage it as white nationalism or something else. Let's call it for what it is."

Hussen said this attack is similar to the mosque shooting in Quebec City, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the Charleston shooting and Wisconsin Sikh temple attack.

"There's a clear pattern of intimidation against people of faith. People of colour. Of the other," he said. Vigils are important, he said, but Canadians need to fight intolerance and "call this hatred out."

Ontario NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown also denounced the politics of division in her remarks.

"It is no longer possible to ignore the link between this kind of violence and divisive, hateful political rhetoric," she told the crowd, urging people to hold elected officials accountable.

Armed police patrol outside a mosque in central Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday. Police services across the GTA have also stepped up their presence outside mosques here, as well. (Mark Baker/Associated Press)

Berns-McGown said she will introduce a private members bill, designating January 29 — the anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting — as a day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia.

Ontario's Environment Minister, Rod Phillips, called the shootings a "deadly terrorist attack on defenceless worshippers," and condemned hatred and violence towards Muslims, noting "this tragedy did not occur in isolation."

If we ignore hatred and bigotry, he said, we are "silently condoning the root cause."

Toronto Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam echoed that. Elected officials must take account for party members, she said, and those who talk in dog whistles and speak out against immigrants and refugees.

"Your city is dedicated to protecting you," said Deputy Mayor Denzil-Minnan-Wong in his remarks.

Police step up security at mosques

Meanwhile, police services across the GTA have stepped up security around mosques during Friday prayers and are asking the Muslim community to remain vigilant.

Caroline de Kloet, a media relations officer with the Toronto Police Service, said the force will "make the appropriate adjustments to our plans in order to mitigate the potential risks to public safety."

She said the public can expect to see more uniformed police in parts of the city.

"In response to the attacks in New Zealand, we will have a heightened police presence in the community, focusing on places of worship — especially mosques," de Kloet said in an email to CBC Toronto. "We have done this to ensure the city is as safe and secure as possible."

Peel Regional Police Const. Akhil Mooken said the shooting at two mosques that killed 49 worshippers has raised safety concerns among the local Muslim community.

"[Peel Regional Police Chief] Chris McCord has been in contact with leaders of our local Muslim community and has assured them that we remain committed to their safety, as well as to the safety of everyone in the community," said Mooken.

"Our vigilance has been raised to an extra level. And our officers will continue to maintain a presence around all places of worship to ensure the safety of all those in attendance."

Mooken said the public can expect to see continuous patrols around various parts of Peel. Police community mobilization teams and community support officers are in regular contact with the various leaders of all the different religions, he said.

El Tantawy Attia, executive director of Toronto Masjid near Dundas and University, says an increased police presence has helped calm the community. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

Const. Andy Pattenden from York Regional Police said people can also expect to see an increase in uniform patrols around places of worship across the region.

In Durham Region, Const. George Tudos also reported heightened security around mosques in the area.

"We are sending our condolences and within Durham Region we have increased our patrols and our visibility around any mosques that we have within our cities and towns," Tudos said, adding that police have contacted local Muslim community leaders.

"We also ask anyone in the communities to report any suspicious activities."

'Feeling reassured'

Imtiaz Ahmed, imam at the Bai'tul Islam Mosque in Vaughan, said the presence of York Regional Police has reassured many in the community.

"It was nice to see a police cruiser at the mosque," Ahmed said. "This reassures that you know our law enforcement authorities they are very well aware of the situation and they are here to protect the communities all across Canada."

Dr. El Tantawy Attia, executive director of Toronto Masjid in downtown Toronto, noticed a police car near the mosque at Dundas St. and University Ave.

"They are doing as much as they can... it is a message of reassurance that life is as usual," he said, adding security will be reviewed for Friday prayers.

"My message to my community is, 'don't panic. We are safe here in Canada. We are safe in the mosque in Toronto. We have been here for many, many years.'"

With files from Adrian Cheung