NORTH YORK, Ont. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Conservative Muslims Friday night to get involved in the next election campaign to ensure that the Conservative party “never again” stokes fear and division against the community.
“Even though it is going to make my life as Liberal leader a little bit more difficult,” Trudeau said at the Canadian-Muslim Vote’s Eid dinner, a gathering of some 1,500 politically engaged Muslims. “I want you to encourage Conservative Muslims to get out and help their local Conservative candidate, to go knock [on] doors, to donate to the Conservative party, to attend a rally for the Conservative leader…
“I want you to make Muslim volunteers important to the Conservatives,” he added, as people started cheering and clapping. “So that never again would any mainstream party in Canada think it’s a good idea to stoke fears and divisions against Muslims or any other group of Canadians,” he said as people stood to their feet in thunderous applause.
“Our government will always stand with you and all Muslim Canadians in condemning Islamophobia and all forms of hate at home and abroad,” Trudeau said, in fighting form at the first campaign event since the House of Commons broke for the summer.
The Canadian-Muslim Vote is a non-partisan organization that seeks to identify and get out the Muslim vote. The prime minister was joined on stage by 20 Liberal MPs from the Greater Toronto Area, including five cabinet ministers: Ahmed Hussen, Maryam Monsef (who was repeatedly noted as having been the first ever Muslim appointed to cabinet), Bill Blair, Mary Ng, and Kirsty Duncan. Two Grit candidates received shout-outs from the stage: Milton’s Adam van Koeverden, the four-time Olympic medallist, and law professor Anita Anand, who is running in Oakville.
Toronto Mayor John Tory also addressed delegates, as did NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt. Tory Leader Andrew Scheer was in Iqaluit, his office said. Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia showed up to pose for pictures and took to the stage to rally the crowd around the NBA championship win.
Raitt, who told the group this felt like the campaign kick-off, welcomed the prime minister’s call for more Tory volunteers.
“We welcome you with open arms,” she said, with a big smile, as she stood next to floor crosser Leona Alleslev, the MP for Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill, and Alberta MPs Garnett Genuis and Ziad Aboultaif.
Trudeau said The Canadian-Muslim Vote had reached 2.5 million people in the past four years and noted the influence of Muslim grassroot volunteers. Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey suggests there are almost 1.1 million Canadian Muslims.
Omar Alghabra, the MP for Mississauga Centre, told HuffPost that the organization was started before the last election because Muslims traditionally had a lower rate of voter participation than the general population. In 2015, participation increased by more than 20 per cent, he said. “They went door to door, they had pamphlets, they went to religious institutions, they spoke to imams and religious leaders, and they spread the message in a non-partisan way.”
It’s good to see them make an effort. It’s obviously not a party that gets traditionally our support.Asim Qureshi, Co-founder of OneWorld Foods
Banners at the event read: “You are loudest when you vote” and “If you don’t vote don’t complain.”
According to a 2015 paper prepared by the Canadian Dawn Foundation, a group dedicated to cross-cultural understanding, the Muslim community accounts for 2.1 per cent of the electorate and it’s estimated it could influence the outcome of races in 23 constituencies.
Many of them are in the GTA, where Friday’s event was held.
“It’s clumped in certain areas of the city,” said Don Valley West Liberal MP Rob Oliphant. “I have a significant population in my riding, [and other clumps are in] parts of Mississauga, parts of Ajax, Pickering, Scarborough, Markham, and that actually increases their ability to be effective in elections, because they are concentrated and they are able to be significant.”
Aboultaif, the Conservative MP for Edmonton Manning, also noted that there are a number of ridings where the Muslim vote can make a difference. “The Muslim community is very important,” he told HuffPost. He said he felt a change was afoot, that there are many young Muslims and many professional Muslims interested in issues that the Conservatives are highlighting. “There are a lot of educated people coming around.”
Aboultaif played down events such as caucus mate Michael Cooper’s decision at a committee hearing in May to read to a Muslim witness part of the New Zealand mosque mass murderer’s manifesto after hearing what he perceived to be a slight against the Tory party.
As he walked around the tables in the convention hall shaking hands, Aboultaif said no one had spoken to him about the incident. He called Cooper “a star in our Parliament.”
Watch: Committee votes to erase Tory MP’s references to N.Z. Terrorist from record. Story continues below.
“Michael Cooper is a very smart man. Brilliant. Michael Cooper very transparent too, that’s his nature,” he said. “Michael Cooper is an MP, and he understands that he needs to stand up and admit that it’s a mistake. It’s not the end of the world.”
Instead, Aboultaif said, what he feels is happening is that the Muslim community is starting to realize that it is being used by the Liberals.
“They singled out the community,” he said, referring to a motion condemning Islamophobia that was passed shortly after the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017, but which had been tabled earlier that fall. The motion, which called on the government to condemn Islamophobia in Canada and for a Commons committee to study systemic racism and religious discrimination in Canada, was opposed by the vast majority of the Conservative caucus, including Scheer. In a since-deleted statement posted on his website during the Tory leadership campaign, Scheer said the motion was “not inclusive” because it singled out only one faith, and that it did “not define Islamophobia.”
Watch: Stephan Harper, Justin Trudeau divided on niqab ruling. Story continues below.
“M-103 could be interpreted as a step towards stifling free speech and legitimate criticism,” he wrote, before asking readers to sign a petition if they agreed with him.
Aboultaif said he believes the Liberals used the motion as a wedge issue. “They exposed the community unnecessarily for their own political game. That’s a shame. We won’t play those political games.”
On stage, Trudeau spoke about political movements that see “change as a threat,” and he called out “leaders for allowing intolerance to fester in the quarters of their parties,” and “individuals who want to spread cynicism and sow division.
“Far too often, and you know this, Muslim communities bear the brunt of that backlash,” he said.
“Hate can only creep in the mainstream if we don’t speak up. This is the moment to call out discrimination and racism in every form; this is the time to stand strong against Islamophobia,” he added to loud applause.
During the last election campaign, anti-Muslim feelings were easy to detect in Bloc Québécois advertising that took aim the NDP for supporting a policy that allows Muslim women to wear niqabs during citizenship oath ceremonies — a policy the Conservatives were fighting in court to end. The Tories’ tip line against barbaric practices was also seen by some as anti-Muslim.
The rhetoric must match the reality.Alberta MP Garnett Genuis
Monsef, who introduced the PM at Friday’s event, said Trudeau had been there in good times and in hard times. “He’s been there for us, and I have to tell you, my Muslim sisters and brothers, I hope and pray that you will be there for him.”
Asim Qureshi, who co-founded OneWorld Foods, and was attending the well-heeled event with his wife, said he was happy to see the Conservatives present.
“It’s good to see them make an effort. It’s obviously not a party that gets traditionally our support,” Qureshi said. “I think they have a long way to go, frankly, to root out some of the challenges within the party, but this is a step.”
Watch: Trudeau calls on all political leaders to denounce hate and Islamophobia. Story continues below.
Salman Malik, who was sitting next to Genuis and joking with him, told HuffPost he isn’t a Conservative but believes Trudeau faces some challenges.
“In terms of connecting with people, he does very well,” Malik said. “In terms of keeping people together, he does a fabulous job.”
“But when it comes to the economy, geo-political strategic events, I think we’ve had a few misfires, right? When you are sitting in Canada and you are at war with U.S., and China and Saudi Arabia at the same time, that is not a good situation for a Canadian country to be in.”
Alghabra, Oliphant, and Scarborough–Rouge Park MP Gary Anandasangaree all cautioned that the Muslim community isn’t a monolith and that its members often have different policy interests, from entrepreneurship to social justice concerns.
“They are not exclusively related to what we would call Muslim or Islamic issues,” Oliphant said.
But the Liberals have been very vocal on issues of plurality, diversity, and racism.
“We’ve called it out for what it is,” said Anandasangaree, who noted that the result of the Committee study on M-103 — the Grits anti-racism policy — will be released in the coming weeks.
I think we are a big representation when it comes to the votes, so it’s nice to hear that someone is considering what our needs are in the community.Sumrana Taher
Sumrana Taher, who was sitting at a table with four other women wearing hijabs, said she doesn’t think one party in particular speaks to the region’s Muslims.
“I think we are a big representation when it comes to the votes, so it’s nice to hear that someone is considering what our needs are in the community.”
She noted that the community spans the socio-economic ladder and that not everyone was able to afford $110 for the event ticket. She was invited by a friend and said she hoped to hear what parties would do to help the most vulnerable in society.
The speeches on stage, however, were more focused on the politicians trying to find areas of commonality with the Muslim community on a religious basis, and comparing and contrasting their stances to their opponents.
Trudeau praised his audience, spoke of Islamophobia at the ballot box during the 2015 campaign, and urged those attending to speak to the cabinet ministers in the room who could help with co-op placement and business loans.
“This community is a testament to the fact that diversity is our strength and that your voices deserve to be heard.”
Genuis spoke for the Tories about the Liberals’ not taking a strong enough stand on China and on the Canadian Pension Plan’s investing in Chinese companies tied to human rights abuses against Uyghurs, the country’s Muslim minority.
“The rhetoric must match the reality,” he said.
Singh was the only politician to speak about Quebec’s new law known as bill 21, which prohibits public servants in positions of authority — teachers, police offices, judges — from wearing religious symbols while working.
He denounced it as “hurtful,” “wrong,” and “divisive.” He recalled speaking to a former Montrealer, who wore a hijab, and discussed her lack of career options with this law. “We bonded on the fact that we are both head-wrapped brothers and sisters,” he told the crowd.
The government is supposed to protect people, Singh said, especially marginalized people, but instead the law “says to people, ’Yes, you can be judged on the way you look, and yes you can be told that you don’t belong because of the way you look.”
The mayor of Toronto, for his part, told the crowd that he hoped and prayed that the next election would “steer well clear of the rhetoric and policies that even tilt slightly in the direction division being invoked elsewhere.”
The federal election is on Oct. 21.