I was in Quebec City last week.
After waking with the baby, I have a bad habit of getting on my phone to read the latest news. It was 4am when I learned of the attack on the mosque in St. Foy, just 7km away from where we were staying.
This year, my family was a part of a team helping two Syrian newcomer families adjust to life in Canada. In doing so, you soon discover your country through the eyes of someone else. I have to say that it has mostly brought forward why we are such a great country. But I have also had to come face to face with some of our ugliest imperfections.
Imagine someone living in your hallway, a few apartment doors down, harassing you and screaming at you that you are a terrorist in front of your children. Being scared to take the elevator alone because of this. I have to tell you the grace with which this situation was calmly handled by my Syrian friends is not something I will soon forget. Fast forward a few months to a Syrian father helping this person with their grocery load in the same hallway.
All day, my Syrian friends were on my mind. We promised them a safe place and here was an attack on a place of worship. The victims and their families were on my mind. These were fathers, uncles, grandfathers. The violence that they all witnessed is horrifying.
We did not feel much like enjoying the festivities of Carnaval that day and chose to take an hour drive outside of the city to Baie St. Paul.
I am a member at St. Aidan’s church and our priest, Kevin George was one of the leaders in assembling 500 people in front of the London mosque in the middle of the day to show solidarity with the victims and the Muslim community. It was a swift and powerful action. We watched the footage from Quebec.
It was cold outside and the kids were hungry, but we made our way from the mountains to the vigil in Quebec City. My daughter, age 9 is old enough to understand the news reports and finally asked us what had happened. We gave her an age appropriate explanation and reassured her that the person who had committed the crime had been caught.
As we made our way down St. Foy, we noticed every bus stop was full of people trying to get on to packed buses going to the vigil site. Many gave up on transit and walked beside our car, which was stuck in traffic.
The bus in front of us had a French message as an advertisement by an education institution about celebrating our differences and similarities. The advertisement encouraged you to send videos to their website in support of that message. I had a lot of mixed emotions reading it.
We finally found parking in a busy shopping centre and walked about one km to where the vigil was taking place. We could not get close enough to the speakers, who were just wrapping up. But we found ourselves right beside the people holding the banner at the beginning of the march.
It was so cold. But so warm in the crowd.
A police officer came down the sidewalk asking people to move on to the road. We obeyed, joking a bit with her. “This is my sidewalk” she said. “I want all of it.”
A few moments later, the Premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard came down the sidewalk, stopping beside us under bright lights to answer the questions of a reporter with a camera in his face. As he continued down the sidewalk, Justin Trudeau followed. My 7 year old daughter squealed: “Mom, it’s Justin Trudeau! He’s right there!”. I shushed her. The crowd was so somber and quiet in contrast to her excitement. You have to understand, this is a girl who has expressed to us that she would like to be in Justin’s family. I lifted her up so that she could see him walking beside us. To see that what we were doing was so important that the Prime Minister was there made an impression on her.
And then the march began. We let the banner go by us and folded into the crowd. I wondered if the people holding the banner were family members or community members?
The cold was biting until you were in the middle of the crowd. The warmth of the crowd felt like a reassuring hug.
People held candles, flowers and signs. Some moved me to tears.
It was so quiet. The loudest sound was thousands of feet walking on crunchy snow. That stayed with me.
One woman stopped to talk to our 11 month old baby, who was riding in a backpack, adjusting her hat. I translated some signs for my husband. My daughters read some out loud.
We marched until we could go no further. We were not able to get right in front of the mosque as the investigation was ongoing. But there was a spot as close as possible, where people left their signs, candles and flowers. And right beside, the police vehicles I had seen in the news.
It happened. Right there.
My thoughts were with family and community members that knew the victims that were undoubtedly in the crowd around me. My thoughts were with the children, present when the attack occured. My thoughts were with the women who lost these men. My thoughts were with the survivors.
I know that in the coming weeks, I will be listening to the Muslim community and taking my cues from them. I can support with words and tweets and posts. But what actions can I take?
I felt a bit uplifted by a Twitter post this morning that shows a group of strangers banding together on the subway in New York to erase a hateful message written with permanent marker on their subway car.
What can you do? Because while words are a start, it’s going to take actions to really combat islamaphobia.
It would be easy, in these times, to become apathetic. Trust me, I’ve had moments in the last two weeks where I have wanted to turn off my Twitter or Facebook feeds permanently.
But we have to do the opposite of that. We need empathy not indifference to fight the fear mongering that is relentless in the news these days. We need to build bridges, not walls…
And we have to look at the ugly bits of our society. While we are often celebrated as a great country in the world, we are not perfect. We have to acknowledge our imperfect history and present in order to build a better future free of the fears behind intolerance, violence and hate.