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Québec calls for resignation of federal government's anti-Islamophobia representative

The Québec government is calling for the resignation of the federal government’s special representative to combat Islamophobia over a 2019 opinion piece in an Ottawa newspaper in which she suggested Québecers are influenced by anti-Muslim attitudes.
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The Québec government is calling for the resignation of the federal government’s special representative to combat Islamophobia over a 2019 opinion piece in an Ottawa newspaper in which she suggested Québecers are influenced by anti-Muslim attitudes.

Ottawa must fire Amira Elghawaby immediately if she chooses not to resign, Jean-François Roberge, Québec’s minister responsible for relations with Canada and for state secularism, said in a statement on Monday, Jan. 30. Roberge said the province had initially demanded an apology from her, which he said did not happen. Now, he said, she has to go.

“All she did was try to justify her abhorrent remarks,” Roberge said about Elghawaby, who was nominated to the role less than one week ago by the prime minister. “That is not acceptable. She must resign, and if she does not, the government must remove her immediately.”

Elghawaby co-wrote a 2019 opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen criticizing Québec’s Bill 21, which bans certain government employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

She and co-writer Bernie Farber, former chief executive officer (CEO) of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the “the majority of Québecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment. A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Québecers who held negative views of Islam supported (Bill 21).”

The legislation, the authors wrote, led to an increase in racist incidents against Muslim women in Québec and “bolsters those who hate and entrenches second-class citizenship, now state-sanctioned.” Elghawaby and Farber accused Québec Premier François Legault of denying the existence of Islamophobia despite the January 2017 attack on a Québec City mosque that left six worshippers dead.

In response to the criticism, Elghawaby tweeted on Friday, “I don’t believe that Québecers are Islamophobic, my past comments were in reference to a poll on Bill 21. I will work with partners from all provinces and regions to make sure we address racism head on.”

While that tweet wasn’t good enough for the Québec government, it was for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Asked by reporters Monday whether Elghawaby’s clarification satisfied him, the prime minister said, “Yes, it satisfies me.”

“Obviously she thought carefully over many years about the impacts that various pieces of legislation and various political positions have had on the community, and her job now is to make sure that she helping government and helping everyone move forward,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.

Québec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said that Elghawaby’s comments were “inappropriate” and won’t help bring people together.

Guilbault attended an event on Sunday, Jan. 29 commemorating the sixth anniversary of the mosque attack. That ceremony, she said, which was attended by people from different backgrounds to show solidarity with families of victims, demonstrated what Québecers are really like.

“This is how Québecers are: we are open, we are welcoming, and we must not extrapolate isolated acts, acts of terror, morbid acts, like the one that was committed on Jan. 29, 2017; we must not extrapolate that to the entire population of Québec,” she told reporters.

Suggesting that Québecers are “systemically racist” or closed off to religious people or those from elsewhere is unacceptable, Guilbault added.

“It’s false, it’s false, it’s false,” Guilbault told reporters. “Québecers are welcoming, are fraternal, and to claim the contrary, especially while occupying an official position with a salary presumably paid by public funds, I find that a slippery slope.”

Elghawaby did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

New Democratic Party (NDP) Leader Jagmeet Singh said Elghawaby had clarified her remarks and that Islamophobia is a problem across Canada that has led to deaths in the country. He suggested that the criticism of Elghawaby was also partly based on her race and gender.

“I think for any woman seeing this, they’ll look at this and see it’s really familiar. The piling on of a woman, in particular a racialized woman, is really troubling in general and in this case it seems to be problematic,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

The ceremony at the Québec City mosque Sunday was the first time the commemoration was held in the same room where the attack occurred. It was also the first anniversary since the attack that Legault did not attend. Guilbault said the premier had a family obligation.

Trudeau attended the event, as did Elghawaby.

Mohamed Labidi, president of the mosque where the 2017 attack occurred, gave a speech during the ceremony in which he praised the appointment of Elghawaby and called on the Québec government to take concrete actions to combat Islamophobia.

Fareed Khan the founder of Canadians United Against Hate, told The Sam Laprade Show on Jan. 31 said he respects Elghawaby, adding that any one of the candidates who were considered for this role were all Muslim and would likely have the same position on the Bill 21 law. 

"They would say that it is a racist law that the government is promoting prejudice against religious minorities, particularly against Muslims," he said. "It has nothing to do with practicing secularism in Québec because the very concept is the government shall not promote a particular faith."

Listen to the full interview with Fareed Khan below:

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

With files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa.

With files from CityNews Ottawa.


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