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Jewish MPP delivers call-to-action on Islamophobia

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Rima Berns-McGown

A Jewish member of the Ontario legislature has introduced a private member’s bill that would set aside a province-wide day to consider Islamophobia and its consequences.

Bill 83, “An Act to Proclaim a Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia,” passed second reading in Queen’s Park on April 4 and now heads to the standing committee on social policy.

Rima Berns-McGown, the NDP MPP for Beaches-East York and one of four known Jewish members of the provincial parliament, introduced the bill on March 19.

In an emotional 12-minute address in the legislature at second reading, Berns-McGown noted that on Jan. 29, 2017, a shooter walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City shortly after the conclusion of evening prayers and murdered six worshippers, injuring 19 others.

She also referenced last month’s attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 50 worshippers were murdered.

“It is no longer possible for anyone anywhere to deny the link between hate and violence and divisive, caustic political rhetoric,” Berns-McGown told a hushed legislature. “It is a link that, as human beings and as legislators, we cannot afford to deny any longer. It is time to act.”

She said that for too long, Canadians “have allowed hate to grow in this country. We have been slow to quash anti-immigrant bigotry. No one can deny any longer where that leads.”

The bill notes that Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Hamilton and other municipalities in Canada have designated Jan. 29 as a day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia. It calls for the day to be marked across the province.

“Hate kills,” Berns-McGown told legislators. “It kills in synagogues and churches and mosques and gurdwaras. It kills on the street and it kills in nightclubs. It kills whether it is called ‘anti-Semitism’ or ‘anti-black racism’ or ‘Islamophobia’ or ‘anti-Sikh racism’ or ‘misogyny’ or ‘homophobia,’ and we need to confront and eliminate all of it. All of it is odious, and all of it twists us into a society that we do not want to be.”

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Berns-McGown was born in South Africa and came to Canada with her family when she was four years old. She said she had lost extended family in the Holocaust.

As a child in Montreal, she recounted, one of her family’s closest friends was a man named Steve Bleyer, a Hungarian who had survived Auschwitz.

“I can still see the tattoo on Steve’s arm. I remember being terrified of everything that tattoo represented, and unable to comprehend how anyone could put a child into a concentration camp simply because of who he was.”

Later, when Bleyer began teaching Holocaust education in schools, “he always said, ‘Never again for anyone’ – never again for himself and his community; never again for anyone. It is the only way to build a society that works for everyone who lives within it,” Berns-McGown said.

Several MPPs, including Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, spoke in favour of Berns-McGown’s bill.

Berns-McGown did not return messages from The CJN seeking further comment.

Moments after Berns-McGown presented her bill, fellow Jewish MPP Roman Baber (York Centre) introduced his own private member’s bill that would ban hate rallies from the grounds of Queen’s Park.

Baber cited figures from Statistics Canada last year, which showed that police-reported hate crimes targeting the Jewish community rose by 63 per cent over the year before, while hate crimes against Muslims were up by 151 per cent.

“Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to engage in hate speech or incite violence,” Baber said.

As reported in The CJN, B’nai Brith Canada is opposing Baber’s bill, saying that preventing hate rallies should go beyond the confines of Queen’s Park, which already has rules for dealing with such events.