By Sean Willett, July 1 2017 —
What happens when an indigenous activist, a Muslim activist and an anti-fascist walk into a Tim Hortons? For three Calgary community leaders, the result was a united front against hate groups in the city.
Michelle Rae Robinson, Saima Jamal and Jason Devine are familiar names for those involved in Calgary activism. But until recently, these community leaders mostly operated within separate circles.
Robinson, a Calgary-born indigenous activist currently running for Ward 10 Councillor, wanted to put aside differences between the city’s various anti-hate groups and focus on building stronger connections between like-minded Calgarians.
“It’s so important to be unified with other organizations that are talking about anti-hate because then there’s an understanding about where we’re coming from,” Robinson said. “Indigenous issues are slightly different than issues in the Muslim community and the anti-fascist group, but together we’re way stronger and have a more solid message.”
This led to Robinson inviting Jamal and Devine to coffee at a Tim Hortons in northeast Calgary. Jamal, a Muslim peace activist, and Devine, a head organizer of Calgary Anti-Fascist Action, had both met Robinson during prior activist work.
“It was really Michelle that said, ‘Well, why don’t the three of us, instead of just talking through each other, just sit down and start working collectively?’” Devine said.
“So we got together for coffee, and that’s when everything started flashing,” Jamal added.
Forming a stronger connection with Calgary’s minority communities was a natural progression for Devine and CAFA, especially with the rise of anti-Islamic organizations in the city.
“If this is the community that is facing the most violence, then we should be speaking with this community, instead of just coming forward like, ‘We’re going to save the Muslims,’ or something like that,” Devine said. “It misses the point.”
As an active anti-racism activist for over 16 years, Devine is well-versed in the ins and outs of Calgary’s various hate groups. Jamal, who came to Calgary in 1998 as an international student from Bangladesh, said that meeting with Devine was an eye-opening experience.
“I was mainly dealing with individual incidents that people were facing — racism on C-Trains, at the mall or at the workplace,” Jamal explained. “But [Devine] already knew the history of these racist organizations in Calgary. So when we sat down and he spoke about the [local hate groups] Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, the Canadian Combat Coalition and the Soldiers of Odin. These are groups I had almost no knowledge about.”
“CAFA doesn’t need to tell any people of colour what racism is or what it looks like,” Devine added. “But most people don’t go out and investigate these hate groups in their spare time. It takes a lot of energy to go through that daily and study the hatred that they have. It’s tiring.”
For Robinson, cooperation between indigenous and Muslim Canadians is a vital part of fighting systemic issues that affect both communities.
“It actually makes a lot of sense for us to team up on the issue of racism,” she said. “We need to have this unity because when we go to report to the police we share a lot of the same barriers. When we go talk to politicians we share the same barriers. There are a lot of similarities, so we should work together and fight racism together.”
“You get more confident, knowing that it doesn’t have to just be Muslim voices crying out for Muslims,” added Jamal. “One thing Muslims keep telling me is that our voices are not enough. We have to get non-Muslim voices to be allies.”
The benefit of working with non-Muslim allies has also been clear for Jamal. She explained that members of Calgary’s Muslim community often shy away from directly challenging hate groups during anti-Islamic rallies.
“That’s what our religion teaches us,” Jamal said. “If somebody is throwing shit on you or your religion, it’s because Allah wanted it to happen. Their heart is already closed, so there’s no point arguing with them. You can try educating them in whatever way, but you can’t get into a screaming match. These guys can. And that’s important, because if you don’t oppose these groups then they feel even more emboldened.”
Forging closer ties with other communities has already paid off for all three activists. Devine said that attendance at CAFA meetings has been steadily rising, and Robinson has been meeting more people willing to learn about indigenous history.
“It’s a community responsibility and an individual responsibility to learn these things, to educate ourselves and work for change,” Robinson said. “I have a lot of hope for what Canada can be.”
Attendance has also been rising at counter-protests against anti-Islamic rallies. While past counter-protests have drawn similar numbers to anti-Islamic rallies, CAFA’s demonstration on June 25 was more than double the size of WCAI’s rally at city hall.
“We have to savour every little victory,” Devine said. “Because it is dark days out there. Islamophobia is on the rise globally right now, especially in North America and Western Europe. So we have to embrace the light when we can see it, those little shafts of hope.”
Despite this growing optimism, all three members of the newly formed anti-racism coalition are careful not to rest on their laurels. Jamal explained that there is still much work to do in Calgary to fight against hate and urges all Calgarians to help do their part.
“If you think that you can do nothing and these people will just go away, they won’t,” she said. “I need people to be courageous. To take the call to action when we make it. Rallies are calls to support, but it’s after the rallies — the connections we make and the work that we do — that’s what really matters.”