POLITICS
03/23/2019 21:00 EDT | Updated 03/25/2019 10:24 EDT

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer Rejects Accusations He's Soft On Islamophobia

He spoke at the annual Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer participates in an armchair discussion at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer tried to dismiss accusations Saturday that he and his party have not done enough to distance themselves from groups that advocate violence against the Muslim community.

Speaking at the annual Manning Networking Conference, the Tory leader was asked by someone in the audience why he was unwilling to condemn Islamophobia.

WATCH: Scheer tackles Islamophobia, vows to balance federal budget at Manning Conference.

"I don't believe that's true," Scheer responded, noting that the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion earlier this week condemning the terrorist attacks against two mosques in New Zealand and the need to "confront hatred, Islamophobia, and white supremacy, in all their forms."

"I reject anyone who would, you know, who would speak out based on Islamaphobic principles whether or not, you know, that's somebody who is trying to lump all people of the Muslim faith in together, or whether it is people who are trying to antagonise elements of the society to have a more negative reaction to those who practice that faith," Scheer told the crowd of Conservatives, peppering his comments with uncharacteristic "ums" and "ahs."

To me the important thing is to speak out against those who would in any way give oxygen or space to those who are trying to promote one group of people over the other.Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer

"To me the important thing is to speak out against those who would in any way give oxygen or space to those who are trying to promote one group of people over the other," he said.

Scheer was criticized this week for failing to do just that.

The president of the Canadian Labour Congress, Hassan Yussuff, told reporters Thursday that Scheer should be held responsible for failing to condemn yellow-vest protesters who showed up in Ottawa in February to demonstrate against pipeline delays while spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"For the leader of the Opposition not able to condemn them ... and stand on a stage with someone who is associated with hate and racism and somehow to not acknowledge that? ... That is a fundamental, I think, failing on his part, and I condemn his behaviour," Yussuff said at an event outlining efforts by the union movement to combat Islamophobia and the steady rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims.

"I don't think he should be excused for it, because he should know better, and if he doesn't, something is fundamentally wrong with his leadership, in my view," Hassan said.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff poses for a photo, Feb. 14, 2019 in Ottawa.

Scheer spoke to the crowd of protesters, many of whom had lost their jobs in the energy sector and driven from Alberta and Scheer's home province of Saskatchewan to make their point to the government. The protesters also heard from Faith Goldy, the social media personality with white nationalist ties.

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Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said he was concerned that not calling out behaviour against Muslims would give licence to others to act on their hatred and their ideologies.

"We are looking to our leaders for leadership, and being naively ignorant or wilfully blind, neither is acceptable and Canadians should demand better," he said.

We are looking to our leaders for leadership, and being naively ignorant or wilfully blind, neither is acceptable and Canadians should demand betterIhsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims

Earlier during Scheer's chat with Global television's Mercedes Stephenson, the Tory leader was asked how he deals with accusations that he is "not being tough enough" with groups advocating violence.

"I deal with [it] by pointing out that the criticisms are completely baseless," Scheer responded.

Last week, the Conservative leader was criticized for issuing a statement in response to the massacre in New Zealand without mentioning that the attacks had taken place in mosques, against Muslims gathered for Friday prayers.

"Ultimately, will we do the right thing? Will we bury our heads in the sand today only to bury them in our hands later?"

Will we bury our heads in the sand today only to bury them in our hands later?Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

On Friday, during a town hall meeting in Thunder Bay, a foreign student from Pakistan took the opportunity to thank the prime minister for his words.

"When I heard your speech, being a Muslim and a resident of Canada, it was the most proud moment for me. That prime minister of Canada, Mr. Justin Trudeau, has addressed Muslims. Undoubtedly, your words matter. They affect and they impact. Mr. Prime Minister, I thank you very much," she said. "Undoubtedly, I feel more secure, among all the countries, in Canada right now," she said as Trudeau smiled, his head bowed. She received a standing ovation from the crowd.

The Liberals have sought to differentiate themselves from the Tories vis-à-vis their relationship with Muslim Canadians.

Scheer, in some ways, has helped them. He voted, for example, against a motion two years ago condemning Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination. The motion called for a study on Islamophobia, data collection on hate crimes and a government strategy to deal with religious discrimination.

Scheer argued that the motion, by singling out one faith, was not inclusive. He raised concerns that by not exactly defining Islamophobia, it could lead to stifling of free speech for those who criticize the religion.