VANCOUVER—Rubab Qureshi stood in the House of Commons this month and asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau how Canada plans to combat the rise of white nationalism and Islamophobia. That is, beyond words of condemnation.
Qureshi was taking part in Daughters of the Vote, an event meant to encourage young women to become more politically active. A video of the April 3 exchange went viral almost immediately.
By the time the 20-year-old hijab-wearing student landed home in Edmonton the next night, her phone was flooded with social-media notifications.
Included in the litany of messages was a stranger who sent her screenshots from a Facebook group named Say No To Jagmeet Singh. In the group, a meme using a photo of Qureshi’s face read: “If you don’t give them everything they unreasonably demand in Canada.”
There were at least 839 comments on the post. The group itself garnered roughly 14,000 likes.
Along with the hateful comments were the names of every Muslim delegate who had participated in the event. Daughters of the Vote brought together 338 women between the ages of 18 to 23 to sit in seats usually occupied by their respective MPs for a mock session of Parliament.
Qureshi is familiar with vitriolic political environments, she said, because of an internship with the Alberta New Democratic Party. This was different.
“My very first thoughts were just intense fear,” Qureshi explained. “All I could think about was whether or not I had accidentally put my address out there somewhere. Or if they could find my phone number and email. I was just absolutely terrified for my safety.”
The Edmonton Mill Woods delegate said other Muslim participants were afraid as well and unsure of where to go or how to react. All of them feared being “doxxed” — a vengeful practice in which a target’s personal information is released online with the expectation that they will be harassed.
Despite acknowledging she was “scared for her life,” Qureshi tweeted out the screenshots that night, saying they were the “kind of racist rhetoric” she intended to address, rhetoric that “consistently incites hate speech” and “violence” toward racialized women.
By the morning of April 5, her phone began to freeze up from the sheer volume of notifications. She said Islamophobia, such as a remark that Muslim women don’t deserve free speech in Canada, was rampant.
“It started to take a toll on my mental health, reading such vast amounts of hate,” she explained. “In that moment, I had to stop and think about whether I had inadvertently done more harm than good.”
In the days following, she said, she couldn’t eat. She would wake up in the middle of the night certain somebody was trying to enter her family’s home. She was scared to walk around Edmonton. She couldn’t walk to the University of Alberta campus alone, where Qureshi studies psychology and gender.
She said she still has not left her house alone.
According to Qureshi, Equal Voice — the group that organizes Daughters of the Vote — quickly offered to remove the delegates’ bios from its website. While she credited the organization for its rapid response, Qureshi said the solution was based in a “victim blaming mentality.”
“I shouldn’t have to go into hiding. These people should not be allowed to do this,” she explained.
The other delegates also refused the option.
Nasha Brownridge is the communications manager for Equal Voice, a multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women to office. She said she was first notified of “hateful and deeply disturbing” posts Friday and immediately reported the content to Facebook.
“Equal Voice condemns harassment and bullying in all its forms. The hate and racism she and other delegates experienced online has no place in Canada,” Brownridge wrote in an email, noting the organization is gathering feedback to improve future programs.
The organization has been under pressure, after the National Observer reported several delegates were “bullied” by their peers following a walkout April 3 to protest Trudeau and Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer.
Equal Voice put measures in place to ensure an inclusive environment, Brownridge said, including a full-time equity co-ordinator, an Indigenous co-ordinator, anti-racism and anti-oppression training in advance for staff and on the first day for delegates, 24/7 on-site support workers, 24/7 on site elders, decompression rooms, a prayer room, an Indigenous forum and travel, accommodation and dietary options.
Facebook said it removed comments on the page that violated its community standards, which include any material that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming, including calls for death or harm.
Still, the consequences for violating Facebook standards vary. For instance, they may warn someone for a first violation, but if behaviour continues, they “may restrict” someone’s ability or unpublish a group or Page.
That didn’t happen with Say No To Jagmeet Singh. The page — which had no listed administrator or geographic location — has since disappeared. Facebook confirmed they did not remove it.
By April 16, another page had emerged under the title “Say No to Jagmeet Singh.Page 2,” with roughly 1,500 people liking it. Star Vancouver reached out to the group but received no response.
Under Facebook’s hate speech policy, calls for violence or dehumanizing references based on people’s immigration status are prohibited. However, the platform allows for criticism of immigration policies.
Weeks after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand — which was broadcast live on Facebook — the company decided to ban several “hate groups” across its platforms, a ban that has included Soldiers of Odin and the Canadian Nationalist Front.
“Our work in this area is ongoing and we’ll continue listening to feedback on how we can build better tools and policies,” wrote a Facebook spokesperson in an email.
For Qureshi, more needs to be done from both social-media platforms and governments.
She said it was that need that propelled her to ask Trudeau during the event whether members of online communities would be penalized or put on terrorist watchlists for openly disseminating Islamophobic or white supremacist ideas. Her personal experience has further demonstrated the social and political rise of white nationalism in Canada, Qureshi said.
“When they’re perpetuating this rhetoric, I want them to stop and think, ‘If I join this group online, will I be prevented from going to America next week, or could I be charged with hate speech?’ That is why I asked for specific policy,” she explained.
It’s time to define what white supremacy is, she added, instead of “throwing it out there as an idea.” Qureshi suggested establishing definitions for right-wing extremism within the context of the government’s recent cyberbullying policy.
That way, she said, there would be little to interpret about what constitutes extremism online.
Qureshi also questioned why it takes large-scale mass hate or systemic violence, such as the New Zealand shooting, to make politicians wake up to the issue.
“We are reluctant to address it because we like to think it doesn’t exist in Canada,” she said. “To pretend like these comments are some niche group of people is ridiculous. And even if you were to say it’s not as big of an issue here as in the States, that is no excuse to avoid it.”
Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food, culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia