Finding the American Dream in Canada

TMuslims celebrate Eid around the globe. Just last month, one Eid or Muslim festival, was over. Another is scheduled for July. I’ve left strings of starry lights in the tall windows of our family room, where they can be seen twinkling from the street in our neighborhood outside of Toronto. There’s a shadowbox-like window by the front door, where I’d hung a colorful garland of star ornaments at the start of Ramadan in April.

I wasn’t always willing to mark my family publicly as Muslim. In fact, we were three years in to becoming Canadian when I first realized that I could put up lights for our celebrations without any of the trepidation I’d felt in my hometown in Pennsylvania. There is a huge contrast between being Muslim in Canada and being Muslim in America today and it has a lot to do with Canada’s decision to tell the truth about its history, while America buries its own.

We left America in 2017, eight months into Donald Trump’s term in office. This was no accident. I felt something was wrong about my husband’s sudden shift from normal, private Islamophobia towards a state-sponsored anti Muslim agenda. For me, and especially for my children, it made moving urgent. At four and six, they had a growing sense of self. We were concerned about their safety.

We are justified in our concern, according to recent surveys and studies by ISPU. ISPU has been a boon to American Muslims, who had previously lacked good data about themselves, helping us see more clearly how we’re faring. One-half of Muslim parents had a child in their school who was subject to bullying because of religion. In 2020, this number has risen to half. A teacher or other school official was almost the victim in nearly a third of these cases. Muslims were more likely to report institutional discrimination than any other religion in 2021. For example, 25% reported that they had experienced discrimination when receiving medical care. At the airport, those figures are 44% for Muslims contrasted with 5% of the general public, applying for jobs, it’s 33% for Muslims and 8% for the general public. It’s increasingly clear that the appropriate comparison for the rate at which American Muslims are experiencing discrimination is not with other religious groups, but other racialized groups. It’s becoming increasingly evident that anti-Muslim attitudes are not only durable in America, but also persist towards other racialized communities.

Our mental health is being seriously affected by the many ways American Muslims feel anti-Muslim biases, threats and discrimination. In a study that was published in JAMA Psychiatry 2021, it found that Americans who identify as Muslims are twice as likely than Americans with other religions to attempt suicide. This spike is attributed to religious discrimination as well as a refusal by American Muslims to seek treatment for mental disorders.

After 9/11 I noticed a rise in these trends. In 2015, my then-kindergarten-aged daughter was warned not to claim she was Muslim at school. She was told this by a teacher, a Muslim who is the only Muslim in the school. Although it is likely that the intention was to protect, it was still worrying. Unwilling to navigate a landscape in which it was dangerous for my six-year-old to be openly Muslim at school and seeing that this sentiment was increasingly normative in our nation’s culture, we began to plan our departure.

It’s not that Canada is utopian for Muslims. Canadians may not be aware of the Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017, where 6 people were shot and 5 more injured. It was perpetrated by Alexandre Bissonnette (27). Quebec saw a tripled increase in hate crimes against Muslims that year.

Another mosque was attacked in Toronto last week. Quebec passed Bill 21 in 2019, banning public employees from wearing any visible symbols of religion. It is widely understood that this was an attempt to stop Muslim women from being placed in positions where hijab can be worn, but it will also apply to those who wear turbans and kippas.

Canada is not a utopia for all racialized peoples. All recent surveys, reports, and studies show that Indigenous Canadians and Blacks still face discrimination in employment, education, social services, and health. There are also disproportionate levels of violence and imprisonment. Canada, like America, has a history of Indigenous genocide and Black enslavement. It also has long histories of police brutality and residential schools. Canada, like America, interned ethnically Japanese persons during World War II. When I was a child visiting cousins in Toronto, the epithet “Paki,” for South Asians, was ubiquitous. This aspect of Canadian history has fueled modern racism and perpetuated inequalities in wealth and land ownership.

Why would we want to move our kids here? We should make our stand in a multi-layered, supportive community with friends and families. Canadian governance has a certain element that makes us optimistic that the American dream might be more easily realized here. If you go to Canada’s Department of Justice website today, you’ll find this remarkable statement: “The Government recognizes that Indigenous self-government and laws are critical to Canada’s future, and that Indigenous perspectives and rights must be incorporated in all aspects of this relationship. In doing so, we will continue the process of decolonization and hasten the end of its legacy wherever it remains in our laws and policies.”

The Canadian government’s acknowledgement of itself as a colonial project that must be actively undone is a dramatic contrast to political discourse in America today. Americans are reluctant to acknowledge America’s essential land- and labor theft from Native Americans and Blacks that made it possible. Certainly, America’s government has never articulated an intention to decolonize. Americans learn that the revolution in their nation has ended colonial rule.

My children were in kindergarten when I gave them a flyer on how to apologize. First, you must admit to wrongdoing, according to the flyer. The flyer said that Americans are still hesitant to admit wrongdoing because of their history of slavery and colonial massacre. In the years since my family moved to Canada, we find that while imperfect, this nation’s fundamental intention towards justice does, in fact, make it a better place for our children to live. For example, their elementary school curriculum includes discussion about what it is to settle on land promised in treaties to First Nations peoples. This teaches our children how human rights might look for everyone, whether we are newcomers or descendants of slavery-torture victims, Indigenous peoples, or immigrants from other waves.

Children know where their ancestral land is and how they study it. The children think about the future and how much debt they may owe those who are their descendants. As a result, they can navigate conflicting interests, different identities and unknown traditions. They are building the tools for a better future through honest study of their nation’s past. This model also provides space for them. They used these same principles to set up a place for children who were fasting to meditate in their gym during Ramadan.

I don’t fully understand why Canada has chosen to confront its colonial legacy while America continues to minimize and deny its own. It is my hope that America will one day unite and tell its history clearly in order to choose a way forward. This is the only way to make America great again.

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