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Ottawa appoints special representative to combat Islamophobia

TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment of Canada’s first special representative to combat Islamophobia on Thursday, calling it an “important step” in the country's fight against anti-Muslim hatred.
National Council of Canadian Muslims communications director Amira Elghawaby listens to a reporter's question as leaders of national and Quebec organizations joined the NCCM to call on governments to counter Islamophobia, racism and discrimination, on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017 in Ottawa. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced the appointment of Elghawaby as Canada’s first special representative to combat Islamophobia.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment of Canada’s first special representative to combat Islamophobia on Thursday, calling it an “important step” in the country's fight against anti-Muslim hatred.

Amira Elghawaby, a journalist and human rights advocate, will serve as an adviser and expert as the federal government works to fight religious intolerance and systemic racism. 

Trudeau said he is looking forward to working with Elghawaby as his government continues to work on making Canada a place where everyone feels safe and respected.

"Diversity truly is one of Canada’s greatest strengths, but for many Muslims, Islamophobia is all too familiar," Trudeau said in a news release. "We need to change that. No one in our country should experience hatred because of their faith."

Speaking at an event to mark her appointment, Elghawaby said she is deeply honoured and humbled to serve the Muslim community in the new role.

Despite the ideal of multiculturalism, she said, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism continue to be present in Canadian society.

"This position ... is one that came about through the support and advocacy of Muslim communities and their allies to address a painful, even deadly reality of Islamophobia in this country, a reality that each and every one of us in this room and beyond are determined to change," she said. 

Elghawaby said Canada is proud of its diverse Muslim communities who have contributed to the country for more than a century. 

"It is our hope that we can use this moment to spur a national conversation about the value of Canadian diversity including the richness of Canada's Muslim communities in our collective success as a nation," she said. 

She called on all levels of government, civil society and Canadians to support her in her new role. 

"We must all work together to combat Islamophobia and build pathways for success for our youth and children, but we can't do this work alone," she said. 

Ahmed Hussen, the federal diversity and inclusion minister, who also spoke at Thursday's event, said the special representative will be supported by staff, and $5.6 million was allocated for her office as part of last year's federal budget.

Recounting anti-Muslim hate crimes in Canada, including the deadly mosque shooting that killed six and wounded eight in Quebec in 2017, Hussen said Islamophobic hate and discrimination still persist. 

"This is unfortunately, for too many in Canada, a lived reality, the fear that you will be attacked as you're waiting for a bus, the fear that you will have to look over your shoulder when you're praying in a mosque, the fear that your children will have to face the indignity of being insulted for who they are, Muslim Canadians," he said. 

"It shouldn't be this way, and it simply doesn't have to be this way, we can do something about it."

In a statement, the National Council of Canadian Muslims called the appointment a "historic moment" and a "major turning point" in the fight against Islamophobia.

The group noted that creating this office was among the recommendations from a national summit on Islamophobia in 2021, which was held after a truck attack killed four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont.

“This is the first time the fight against Islamophobia will have an established home in Canadian government. We look forward to working with the special representative on issues and items that have long been on the list of priorities for our community,” Stephen Brown, CEO of NCCM, said in a statement.

“There are urgent changes that need to be met, from better oversight for our national security agencies, to stopping our community organizations from being unfairly audited. We have a lot of work ahead and we are so excited that there is now an office that can help us bring about these changes at the institutional level.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023.

Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press