Finding the American Dream in Canada

7 minute read
Ali-Khan is the author of “A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America,” which will be published July 5.

This is a festive period for Muslims around the world. One Eid, or Muslim celebration, has just passed, and another is coming up in 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. That was not a coincidence. There was something malignant about the leap from ordinary, private Islamophobia to a state sponsored anti-Muslim agenda that made leaving feel urgent, for me and for my husband, but especially for our children. We worried for their physical safety, but also for the sense of themselves they were developing at four and six years old.

Recent studies and surveys by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) tell us our concerns were justified. 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. In 2020, half of all Muslim parents reported having a school aged child who experienced bullying related to their religious identity in the previous year. In almost a third of those cases, the perpetrator was a teacher or school official. In 2021, Muslims reported experiencing institutional discrimination at levels much higher than other religious groups, for example 25% of Muslims vs. 5% among those of other religious affiliations reported religious discrimination while receiving health 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 is also increasingly clear that anti-Muslim attitudes in America are durable, as attitudes towards other racialized groups have also been.

All of the myriad ways in which American Muslims experience anti-Muslim bias, threats, and discrimination appear to be having serious impacts on our mental health. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2021 found that American Muslims are now twice as likely to have attempted suicide than Americans of other religious affiliations. It attributes this spike to religious discrimination and a reluctance among American Muslims to seek mental health treatment.

I first noticed the uptick in these trends after 9/11 and then again in 2015, when my kindergarten-aged daughter was told not to say she was Muslim at school. The teacher who told her this was Muslim herself, the only other Muslim at the school in any capacity. While it was likely the instruction was meant to be protective, it was nonetheless 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. Even non-Canadians likely remember the Quebec City mosque shooting of 2017, in which 6 men were killed and 5 others injured by a 27-year-old named Alexandre Bissonnette. The number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Quebec tripled that year.

There was another mosque shooting just last week in Toronto. In 2019, Quebec passed Bill 21, banning certain public workers from wearing visibly religious symbols, widely understood as an attempt to prevent Muslim women in such positions from wearing hijab, though also affecting those who wear turbans, for example, or kippas.

Nor is Canada utopian for other racialized groups. Recent surveys and reports all suggest that Black and Indigenous Canadians continue to experience widespread discrimination in jobs, education, and social services, health disparities, and disproportionate rates of incarceration and violence. Like America, Canada has a legacy of Black enslavement and Indigenous genocide, as well as a long history of residential schools and police brutality. Like America, Canada interned ethnically Japanese people during World War II. When I was a child visiting cousins in Toronto, the epithet “Paki,” for South Asians, was ubiquitous. These aspects of Canadian history have driven modern racist attitudes and continuing disparities in wealth, land ownership, and political power.

So why move our children here? Why not make our stand where we have a large, layered community of friends and family? There is a specific element of Canadian governance that made us hopeful that our American dreams might be better realized in Canada. 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 rarely acknowledge the essential thefts of land and labor from Native and Black people that have made America possible. Certainly, America’s government has never articulated an intention to decolonize. Americans are taught that their country has already had its revolution, freeing its people from colonial domination.

Years ago, in preschool, my children brought home a flyer about how to make an apology. The first step, the flyer said, is to acknowledge wrongdoing. With its history of slavery and colonial genocide, Americans yet find this step so controversial that, today, we cannot even agree to teach our own history in public schools. 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. Their elementary school curriculum, for example, includes a discussion of what it means to be a settler on land that was promised to First Nations peoples in treaties. It challenges our children to reckon with what human rights for all of us, newcomers from many waves of immigration, descendants of those trafficked in slavery, and Indigenous peoples, might look like.

The children know whose traditional land they live and study on. They think about where the descendants of those people are, and what debt they might owe to them. In the process they are developing the capacity to navigate competing interests, diverse identities, and unfamiliar traditions. They are building the tools for a better future through honest study of their nation’s past. They recognize that this model secures space for them, too. Recently, their teachers applied the same principles to create a meditation space in the gym for fasting children to use over lunch 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. I continue to hope that America will eventually unite around a plain telling of its own history in choosing a path forward. It is, after all, the only path that is wide enough for us all.

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