ORAL SUBMISSION ON STUDY ON SYSTEMIC RACISM AND RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION (M-103)
THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON CANADIAN HERITAGE (CHPC) HOUSE OF COMMONS
OCTOBER 30, 2017
MUAINUDIN AHMED, (DIRECTOR) -AND- AZIM DAHYA , (CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER)
Introduction, outline of presentation
Madam Chair and honourable members. We are greatly privileged to appear before this committee to make a submission on behalf of our organization, the Muslim Foodbank and Community Services. We trust that this will assist the committee’s important study on the issue of systemic racism and religious discrimination.
Our presentation today will comprise four parts, as follows:
First, we will build some context around our organization to help the committee understand the perspective from which we make this submission.
We will then share our view of the systemic causes of racism, based on our experiences working as a grassroots community organization.
Thirdly we will recommend the one area of focus which we believe will be the most impactful in addressing this challenge.
And then finally we have some additional observations and practical insights gathered from our work.
Overview of Muslim Foodbank Community Services – “Serving Humanity”
Foodbank Operations is but one part of operating model, which has evolved over a period of almost 8 years.
The Muslim Foodbank grew out of the Surrey Foodbank to serve the needs of Foodbank clients who had special dietary needs (halal, kosher, vegetarian, vegan, etc.). While our client base demographic is predominantly Muslim from all ethnicities, we are non denominational from a muslim perspective and also try to serve families from other faith and cultural communities.
While Foodbank Operations is our core program, this has been supplemented over time with five other programs, i.e. the ASPIRE Caseworker Program, Prison Outreach, Youth Support, Refugee Support and Community Capacity Building.
- It is important to stress at the outset that we make our submission from a “grassroots level” perspective. It emerges not from analysis of large amounts of statistical national data, but rather from the real-world, localized experiences playing out in the lives of the thousands of Canadians that our team has interacted with since our inception.
- Throughout the development of our programs we have always applied a principle of leveraging existing social services, rather than re-creating new ones. We recognize that capacity in the social services is not always optimally employed. An accessibility gap often exists between service delivery centres and the communities in need. This gap is not so much one of physical space but manifests more often in cultural, language and other barriers.
- In addition to the plethora of trauma-induced mental health challenges, we have seen additional mental and emotional health issues stemming from the racial and religious discrimination experienced by our clients.
Systemic Causes of Racism: A Grassroots Perspective
A sad necessity of our work is that it connects us to many people who are victims of discrimination based on their ethnicity and/or religious affiliations. Our teams in the Caseworker and Youth Support programs regularly encounter stories spanning the spectrum of naked racist abuse to insidious, silent discrimination. Allow us to share a couple of examples:
ASPIRE is our caseworker program which was conceived as a mechanism to break our clients out of the cycle of ongoing dependency on Foodbank services. The goal is to move them to a point of being self-sufficient, dignified members of Canadian society.
Our Foodbank trained caseworkers engages the client one-on-one, supporting and connecting them to available community and government resources. The focus is on education, employment and community integration. Our caseworkers often act as mentors and as the first level of social support for clients experiencing incidents of racial discrimination. Our caseworkers are supported by a group of formally-trained social workers.
Feedback from this group recounts many incidents of racial discrimination and harassment of especially Muslim women in public spaces. Muslim women also experience employment discrimination i.e. hijab-wearing Muslim women told to “take that off” at job interviews. Our case files include stories of discrimination in even the process of seeking accommodation (i.e. landlords appearing overly interested in where clients are from before allowing them to even view advertised properties).
In our Youth Support program, participants report an increased level of physical bullying, exclusion and cyber-bullying of Muslim youth. This occurs mostly in the school setting. The stories tell not only about discrimination suffered at the hands of other students, but there are even some teachers who put Muslim students on the spot or make unfair generalizations. The Muslim youth we deal with contend with both Islamophobia and anti-immigrant discourse on a regular basis.
This is indisputable data confirming that religious discrimination does indeed exist in our society.
The Muslim Foodbank serves the socially marginalized who are already burdened with the trauma of war, poverty, illness, incarceration, etc.
Our view is that this marginalization, in fact, primes our clients for discrimination. We reach this conclusion because the consistent theme in their stories is that the perpetrators invariably view them as “the other”. We deduce from this that racism thrives in settings where social barriers exist and where there is a lack of mutual knowing. Any attempt to systemically root out racism and discrimination, then, is inherently a project about connecting (and re-connecting) people.
A further insight derived from our work, in the context of newcomers, is that connecting people is a bilateral responsibility. While we are not advocating “forced integration”, the connecting process cannot work unless newcomers make some effort to appreciate the nuances of their new environment and acknowledge a need for some adaptation.
This is not to say there is an unwillingness on the part of newcomers. Rather, there exists an opportunity to better align the available support services to facilitate adaptation to the needs of a wide variety of newcomer communities. And indeed, to develop new services for which there has not been a need to date.
A good example of this is the importance of offering refugee integration services in “mother tongue” (rather than purely in the official Canadian languages). Canadian culture workshop curricula need constant review to include topics which may not previously have been deemed important to include – topics like parenting norms, western social etiquette, gender interaction etc.
Recounting a certain case can be illustrative: the well-meaning Canadian neighbor of a Syrian refugee family recently felt the need to call the police to report possible abuse of the young children by the mother when he heard her loudly admonishing her children. All three parties in this case (i.e. the concerned neighbor, the language-challenge Canadian responding officer and the disoriented mother) were working from different starting points of what was socially acceptable. All parties were poorly prepared to avoid a situation where the mother, confronted by an authority figure who she was socially conditioned to see as threatening, feels discriminated against and ultimately alienated from her neighbor. Better collective awareness might have led to increased social cohesion and a much more desirable outcome. The embattled Syrian mother would have viewed and reached out to her neighbor as a potential source of help, to replace the support structures lost in the transition from home to refugee camp to new home in Canada. The neighbor would have suspended judgement of the mother based on an appreciation of her trauma and the general burden of forced displacement.
The Foodbank’s Community Capacity Building program recognizes the mental health issues caused by racism within the marginalized communities and has intervened by facilitating training symposiums on Mental Health in the Muslim Community, bringing together local Healthcare, Community and Professional services providers.
The One Thing That Can Make The Biggest Difference
In the interest of time we have elected to identify the one top priority item for government that we believe will make the biggest positive impact.
Stated plainly, we believe that government should direct funding flows more effectively towards community organizations.
This would remove one of the key hurdles which prevents community organizations from scaling up the impact of their already worthy efforts.
We have argued in this submission that community organizations occupy a uniquely advantageous position (as compared with government agencies or government-funded NGOs) to engage with victims and perpetrators of racial and religious discrimination. This is because this discrimination invariably plays out at the inter-community or intra-community level.
Community organizations like these exist throughout Canada and represent a vast, untapped, but struggling component of society which can be instrumental in shaping and giving expression to the true Canadian identity.
Although our operating model represents a response to the specific needs of a particular community, we believe that all our programs are entirely replicable in other communities – there is no reason that organizations like this should not exist in various ethnic communities from coast-to-coast.
Community organizations have however been frustrated by the challenges in accessing the vast public funding pools which are already available. Remove these barriers and similar programs, could very easily spring up all throughout Canada in all communities.
Community organizations themselves also have a role to play to eliminate access barriers e.g. any organization which successfully accesses government funding can sign up to a buddy principle to nominate or help others apply.
Other Observations and Practical Insights
This is not to say that other interventions are ineffective. We recognize, of course, that through a combination of policy design, legislation and funding, government is a key actor in ending systemic racial and religious discrimination in Canadian society.
To this end, we offer these additional insights based on our work. These recommendations speak to the issue at both the level of systemic causes as well as at the level of promoting healing in the aftermath of episodes of racism and discrimination:
- Our work with refugees teaches us that the trauma which feeds the marginalization starts with and then subsequently flows through the mother. Programs targeting systemic remediation should focus on mothers or primary caregivers in the family unit.
- The English Language curriculum for newcomers can be strengthened by applying a human rights lens to include topics such as “What is Discrimination and How to Recognise It” and “How to Cope with Islamophobia (including at job interviews, housing search and street harassment)”
- Expand the training curricula for social workers, teachers, public servants and health professionals, moving beyond simple awareness to robust training and Cultural Competency programs on how to work with immigrants and refugees. The Indigenous Cultural Safety program is a good model of the success of this type of education.
- Our Prison Outreach Program has also highlighted a need to align equity and funding in the appointment of prison chaplains with the demographics of the prison population so that more relevant support and social re-integration programs can be built into the prison system.
In closing, we wish to say that although we are here today to discuss a government-oriented motion, the underlying truth is that it will take coordinated action across all sectors and layers of society to beat back the creeping darkness of racism and discrimination in Canada.
Looking around this chamber, we are humbled to have been granted the attention of such an esteemed gathering and will be happy to engage with any Committee members who wish to better understand our model and experiences.
We hope that our submission will contribute to realizing a Canada which continues to be a world beacon for inclusivity and respect for diversity.