For rookie Liberal MP Arif Virani, his government’s ambitious plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees – and the backlash it has engendered in the wake of the Paris massacre – is personal.
The new MP for Parkdale-High Park can thank Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, for his life in this country, an experience that began at a Montreal YMCA as his family arrived in a strange, frigid land with only two suitcases.
Virani was only 10 months old when he was bundled up as the family fled the brutal dictatorship of Idi
The Liberal government of the day accepted 7,000 Ismaili Muslim refugees, expelled from Amin’s
Uganda, in a 90-day blitz that marked the first refugee effort of its kind from a non-European country.
From that room on Peel St., Virani’s path took him to Toronto’s Flemingdon Park, then Willowdale, then McGill and the University of Toronto. It weaved its way through a parliamentary internship, then a post as counsel in the constitutional law branch of the Ontario government, now a member of Parliament in a tough race in which he wrested the seat from NDP incumbent Peggy Nash.
There was a backlash in 1972, as there is now, and it surfaced sporadically over the years.
It happened again during the campaign, where a handful of voters told Virani they would never vote for a Muslim.
That stings as much today as it did 23 years ago when a guy in a North Bay bar called him a “Paki,” or 10 years earlier when the same label was affixed to his mother in a Toronto grocery store.
“You know, I’m a fairly level-headed guy, I like the sound of my own voice,” Virani said Thursday.
“I’m a litigator and I can talk and I can usually deal with issues and I’m well-versed in responding at the door.”
He could handle himself when people objected to the Liberal position on trade, or CBC funding, or anti-terrorism legislation, but that ease melted away when he faced intolerance.
“Whether you are 3 or 43, when somebody volleys an intolerant, bigoted sentiment to you, it stupefies you for a moment. You want to say, ëWho the hell do you think you are?’ But you can’t say that, because you always want to be respectful.
“I was tongue-tied. I would pause. I would say, ëI’m sorry you felt that way, that’s not the type of Canada I believe in, have a nice day.’
“It’s very demeaning and dehumanizing when you get attacked on something because of your skin colour or your religion or your place of origin.”
So, he agonizes over the mosque-burning in Peterborough, the vandalism of a Kitchener temple, and the assault of a Muslim woman in his old Flemingdon Park stomping ground. The woman was picking up her
son at Grenoble Public School, where Virani’s sister used to attend, when she was assaulted in what Toronto police called a hate crime.
Two Muslim women were accosted and verbally assaulted on a subway at Sherbourne station on Wednesday. A Muslim woman in Ottawa found a threatening note in her mailbox.
Virani believes the Rob Ford regime at Toronto City Hall, then the injection of the niqab in the Stephen Harper campaign, emboldened those who had kept such thoughts to themselves, ripping the filter off
those who silently harboured racist views.
“It gave people an issue to latch on to and something to go on the attack about,” he said.
But he takes heart in the response to the backlash. The Peterborough mosque raised more money than its goal after it was torched. There was a similar outpouring of revulsion over the Flemingdon Park assault.
That shows progress, he thinks, but adds: “To be blunt, there will always be an element in Canada that is resistant to change and . . . are somewhat intolerant. They fear the unknown.”
The type of intolerance faced by Virani or others really comes from people who won the life lottery.
They were born in this country; they have never been given 90 days to flee their home, they have never tried to escape terror, they have never lost loved ones in an internecine war, or been forced to endure brutal conditions in a refugee camp.
Yet, they want to turn their backs on those who have endured such despair.
Will it pass?
Virani didn’t mention the biggest reason for hope that it will. On election day in October, 24,623 Parkdale-High Park voters put an “X” beside his name, choosing him to represent them in Ottawa.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services