FEATURE

Amid death threats and hate over her anti-Islamophobia motion, Liberal MP Khalid takes the high road

A month after M-103 was first debated in the House setting off a storm of reaction across the country, police are still patrolling her Mississauga-Erin Mills riding office, but Liberal MP Iqra Khalid is trying to focus on the positive responses she's received too. The motion is scheduled for a second hour of debate on March 21 and will likely pass shortly after.

Rookie Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, pictured with some of her caucus colleagues on the Hill last month, said when she first received angry and negative responses to her motion in December she felt confused. The Hill Times photograph by Maureen McEwan

By LAURA RYCKEWAERT

PUBLISHED : Monday, March 13, 2017 12:00 AM

PARLIAMENT HILL—When rookie Liberal MP Iqra Khalid tabled her private member’s motion, M-103, last December, she said she was looking to start a conversation about systemic racism and religious discrimination in Canada. But before it even came up for debate in Parliament, she got a first-hand look at the darkest side of the issue.

Since putting her private member’s motion No. 103 in the House of Commons on the notice paper on Dec. 1, Ms. Khalid (Mississauga-Erin Mills, Ont.) said she estimates she’s received about 90,000 emails on the issue, along with “thousands and thousands” of phone calls and social media messages—divided about 60-40 between the negative and the positive, respectively. Among the negative responses, are the truly hateful, including “a number of death threats” now under investigation by the RCMP, she said.

“My initial reaction was confusion,” said Ms. Khalid, 31, of her thoughts after seeing the first angry, negative responses to her motion on social media around the end of December.

“I didn’t understand how a call for a study to really look into providing solutions for issues of systemic racism, religious discrimination … how that could be interpreted to restricting freedom of speech, going against our Constitution or creating sharia law in Canada,” she said.

  

Social media posts “brought the attention, and then the emails started to come in,” said Ms. Khalid, adding that, “there were a lot of positive emails, as well as the negative.”

A non-binding private member’s motion, M-103 proposes that the government should “recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear,” and “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of the House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it.” It asks that the House of Commons’ Heritage Committee study how the government could “develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making.”

The motion also proposes the committee “collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities,” and present its findings and recommendations within 240 calendar days after the motion passes. M-103 was seconded by 12 other Liberal MPs and debated for the first time on Feb. 15. It is set to come up for debate for a second hour on March 21, and Ms. Khalid said “it will be scheduled for a vote soon thereafter.”

With her Liberal colleagues backing her, including Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) who has shown strong support, along with opposition members, including some Conservatives, she said, the motion is likely to pass and be acted on.

  

Ms. Khalid said she was inspired to draft it after an e-petition sponsored by her colleague, Liberal MP Frank Baylis (Pierrefonds-Dollard, Que.), garnered almost 70,000 signatures. Dubbed E-411, it called on the House to recognize that “extremist individuals do not represent the religion of Islam” and to condemn “all forms of Islamophobia.” She said she took the response to it as a call to action.

“I wanted to make it broader and to be applicable and to really understand the systemic racism, religious discrimination that all communities feel in Canada,” said Ms. Khalid last week in an interview with The Hill Times in her Justice Building office on the Hill.

A rookie MP elected in 2015 with 49.7 per cent support, Ms. Khalid and her family immigrated to Canada from Pakistan in 1998 when she was 12 years old—before then spending a number of years living in Manchester, England, while her father studied his PhD. Attending high school and university in Toronto before her family moved back to Mississauga, where they’d first landed, Ms. Khalid said she comes from a community that celebrates its diversity, but nonetheless, she experienced discrimination growing up.

“That’s where I continue to say that no one community is immune,” said Ms. Khalid.

  

She started drafting her motion in October, in consultation with “diverse groups” across her Mississauga-Erin Mills riding, which she noted is one of the most diverse in Canada, from local synagogues to churches to mosques to Hindu temples and more, the vast majority of whom penned endorsement letters in support.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, centre, pictured with constituents at a community event in her riding of Mississauga-Erin Mills, Ont. last summer. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Khalid

Despite its non-binding nature, the motion has sparked a firestorm of reaction, from columns, to protests, to petitions.

“How long until my honest criticism of Islamism constitutes a speech crime in Canada?” queried National Post columnist Barbara Kay in a Feb. 7 piece on the motion, in which she says it’s “noteworthy that the motion does not define Islamophobia.”

“Looking back on my own oeuvre of Islam-related writing, I have to wonder if much of what I have written—forthrightly, but responsibly—would pass muster in a post-M-103 Canada,” she writes.

A lack of definition of ‘Islamophobia’ in the motion is a point many have seized on, and last month, Conservative MPs sought unsuccessfully to amend the motion by removing the word.

Currently, right-wing outlet Rebel Media has an open petition, “Freedom to Offend: Support Free Speech, Not Sharia,” declaring that the government is “preparing to silence anyone who criticizes Islam,” and that the motion is “a blatant attack on free speech.” Rebel Media also organized a “Freedom Rally” the night of the first debate on M-103 at a Toronto Christian college, attended by an estimated more than 700 people.

On March 4, a number of demonstrations were organized protesting M-103 in Toronto and Montreal, with smaller ones in Calgary, Saskatoon, and Regina. Counter-protests were also organized, leading to some clashes between groups in Toronto and Montreal.

Just five days before the motion came up for debate, on Feb. 10, there was a mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec City’s Sainte-Foy neighbourhood, which left six men dead. The shooter was described in reports as an anti-foreigner, anti-feminist, far-right Trump supporter.

Even in her “wildest imagination,” Ms. Khalid said she hadn’t thought something like the shooting could have happened.

“It is not about one race over another. It is not about one religion over another. Hate does not discriminate. I am sure the black community, the Jewish community, the aboriginal community, the Sikh community, and many more communities feel what their brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith feel today,” said Ms. Khalid when started off the debate in the House on Feb. 15, noting that Statistics Canada data from 2014 show a doubling of hate crimes against Muslims over a three-year period.

Initially, after introducing her motion in the House, Ms. Khalid said she wasn’t aware of any negative feedback, and said if she had to “pin-point it, the first negative piece” was a video from Rebel Media Jan. 25, which she said she felt was “unfair” and was “really politicizing the issue.” After that, the hateful messages began to stream in, she said.

Ms. Khalid comes across as a cup-half-full kind of person, quick to smile and to laugh, but when asked about the hateful messages she and her staff have received since late last year, she glances down, her face sombre and tight.

She read out examples of the “direct discrimination and direct threats” she’s received in response to her motion in the House on Feb. 16, shocking many. A YouTube video, in which she’s called a “disgusting human being,” a “scum bag,” with the individual saying they would “be there to film you on the ground crying … writing the story with a big fat smile on my face. ‘Ha ha ha ha, [Ms. Khalid] got shot by a Canadian patriot’,” is just the “tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“Kill her and be done with it,” said one message, “Why don’t you get out of my country? You’re a disgusting piece of trash and you are definitely not wanted here by the majority of actual Canadians,” read another.

But Ms. Khalid said she is eager to stress that she’s also received positive messages, along with the negative. The peak of contacts to her office came about a week before the first debate, when she said she was getting about “30 to 40 notifications on my Twitter feed” every hour.

“There was a time when it was really, really an issue that Canadians were very much seized with, and I really appreciate that, I appreciate the conversations that were occurring and continue to occur on this very important issue,” she said, adding a conversation is what she wanted, and “at least it happened and is continuing to happen.”

At the peak of the deluge, Ms. Khalid instructed her staff to lock the riding office door behind her and screen calls, something she said is no longer happening, though they continue to get calls “throughout the day” from across Canada.

A day after Ms. Khalid gave the country a glimpse at the hate that’s been directed at her, the Peel Regional Police indicated it had increased patrols around her constituency office and home. Ms. Khalid lives with her parents in Mississauga and said while they’ve always been “the kind of people who never lock our doors,” they have started to now and have installed a private home security system.

“It’s kind of sad and annoying when you’re trying to come home late at night and the door’s locked,” she said.

She said her family has been “very, very supportive” and patient through the ordeal, though she quipped that with three brothers—one older, two younger—there’s something of a walk-it-off, “you’re doing okay,” attitude. Ms. Khalid said her caucus colleagues have “been phenomenal in their support” and encouragement and “in fielding some of the negativity themselves and never letting me deal with the brunt of people in their riding[s].”

She said Science Minister Kirsty Duncan (Etobicoke North, Ont.) has, in particular, been a mentor and that, “the amount of support that she’s provided over these past few months has really helped to keep me going.”

Since publicly sharing her experience on Feb. 16, Ms. Khalid said the hateful messages have decreased while the positive ones have increased. During a recent break week in her riding, she said she visited a Sunday school class of children who had made her thank you cards.

“It was a very touching moment for myself,” she said. “I really do want to highlight the increasing number of positive notes and letters of support that we’ve received here, handwritten notes, beautifully decorated.”

Ms. Khalid noted that shortly after the House debate on her motion on Feb. 15, and amid the peak of negativity, she did a Facebook live video outlining what the motion was all about. To date, it has been shared more than 500 times, garnered 1,790 comments, and about 42,000 views, but she said Facebook analytics indicated “only 59 people actually watched the video with the sound on to the end.”

“It really goes to show that I think we, as Canadians, we really need to do more to inform ourselves on the issues that really affect us, and to get to understand an issue completely before forming an opinion,” she said, adding she was, “a little disappointed in our media for the misconceptions that were spread.”

With her motion soon be debated again, in the meantime, Ms. Khalid said her office has already started responding to the 90,000 messages, good and bad.

“We have a policy in our office that we respond to everything,” she said. “I’m really glad that Canada had the opportunity to have this discussion and I’m really looking forward to continuing that discussion in the way of a formal study with Canadian Heritage.”

lryckewaert@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times