Les Canadiens Errants

Last night, in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, a 27-year-old French-Canadian walked into a mosque and slaughtered six people as they knelt before the god of their choosing during evening prayers. Sainte-Foy sits at the edge of the Gulf of St Lawrence – that great expanse of water mapped centuries ago by the naval explorer Jacques Cartier. In mapping this shore, Cartier’s objective was to claim new territory for France – to light the way so that others might immigrate to a new world. In time, those others came. Ship after ship, family after family and eventually those immigrants created a new country and called it Canada.

And so Canada today is a melting pot – a land where “hopes are high”; a “model of how people of different cultures can live and work together” – a land where “diversity is our strength”.

Last night, however, a snow-covered suburb in sleepy Ste-Foy was the scene of unimaginable violence. Sainte-Foy is just a few hours from the farm where my father grew up, and for much of my upbringing in Australia, the far-flung province of Quebec had always seemed a distant second homeland – la patrie de mon père – my father’s birthplace. Canada and Australia are both Western countries, I was taught, and because of that they have shared values. Democracy, diversity, equality before the law. These were the values that both of my grandfathers fought for during World War II – one in the Australian Army and one in the Canadian Army.

But now, watching as incommensurable ideological changes sweep across the Western world, I wonder – do we Westerners value diversity and equality anymore?

“This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith,” said Prime Minister Trudeau in a statement before the Canadian parliament, the morning after the attacks. Read that again. “Targeted for practicing their faith”. Targeted for kneeling on the floor in search of a spiritual connection with a higher being.

Is this acceptable now? Are there proscriptions on the gods we are allowed to pray to? Are there parts of the world where a Westerner is not allowed to be born in? Are there people on this earth who will never be allowed to count themselves among us simply because of the god they choose to pray to and the holy book they choose to follow?

“My worthiness stems from my faith and labor” reads the motto of the city of Ste-Foy and yet, yesterday, a young French-Canadian walked into a mosque and shot six people precisely because of their faith. The Islamic faith, by his reckoning, is unwelcome in the West – so violence was how he chose to welcome it. Six Canadians now lie dead – their bodies cold on a slab in some wintry morgue.

“Un canadien errant / Banni de ses foyers” sings the most famous Quebecois folk song. “A wandering Canadian / Banished from his hearth”. But it is not just one of us – the disturbed son of Ste-Foy last night – who is lost. We are all lost.

How did we end up here? Hate, of course.

Even as the smell of cordite hung heavy in the air of the Ste-Foy mosque, a member of my own family – an “ironic” supporter of the alt-right movement in the West– messaged me with “news” that the attacks had been committed by a pair of Muslim refugees who had entered Canada last week. Of course, it was just a “troll” he said and I had been “triggered”. That six people had just been shot to death was apparently lost on him but as we have learned in recent months trolling is the signature of the alt-right and the context never matters.

Elsewhere and everywhere on Twitter, on Facebook and sometimes even in the news media, the alternative facts were multiplying. The shooter was Syrian, no Moroccan, no d’origine Arabe… But then, when the details of the case became clear – that the shooter was not a refugee (nor even a recent immigrant) but rather a home-grown, born-and-bred citizen of Canada, the alt-right Twittersphere retreated, confused. “Canada attack doesn’t make sense,” tweeted Tommy Robinson, a leader of the far-right English Defence League. “Unless the Mohammed guy’s an apostate”.

It is true, that blame for the mindless slaughter rests solely in the hands of the young man from Ste-Foye. But just as an extremely selective, simplistic and not at all holistic reading of Islamic texts has produced the phenomenon we know today as jihadism, so too is it reasonable to deduce that the stereotyping, hatred and intolerance ubiquitous in the discourse of the far-right has created a set of conditions which allowed Ste-Foy to occur.

The Trump effect, it seems, has already gone transnational. Here, north of the border of all places, the consequences of his rhetoric are already being felt. The real “carnage”, it seems, is not the dystopian realm of rusted factories described by the President at his Inauguration. No, the real “tombstones scattered across the landscape” are those of the actual dead – those whose bodies lie riddled with bullets even as the President’s divisive rhetoric continues.

“This is Allah’s home,” said one Quebecoise woman, surveying the aftermath in Ste-Foy. “There was blood spilled on the floor.”

Of course, the president of a foreign country is not responsible for the attack that occurred last night in my father’s patrie. In this case, the blame rests firmly in the lap of a disturbed young man. Perhaps now though, even Donald Trump can see how hateful words can lead to violence. Perhaps now he can see how unfair it is to paint a whole people with a broad stroke of the same brush. How tragic that it would take the deaths of six innocent people for him to realize that.

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