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They came by the hundreds in sub-zero temperatures and stood together in knee-deep snow. They came from every race, religion, and age group, waving signs that read, "We are all Muslim," "Silence equals complicity" and "No ban, no wall."
Protesters formed a human chain in front of the U.S. embassy in Ottawa on Monday to demand an end to President Donald Trump's travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. It was a demonstration of solidarity with Muslims and refugees in Canada and around the world, participants said, and with the victims of a tragic mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque on Sunday evening.
"All of this is about division, it’s about hate," Amira Elghawaby, communications director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, shouted through a megaphone. "We are deeply concerned about rising Islamophobia here in Canada, and we fear (Trump's) policy will aggravate this phenomenon."
Remove America's designation as a "safe" country
The crowd, which stretched several city blocks and shut down portions of Ottawa's iconic Sussex Drive, made several demands of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government. They demanded Trudeau formally denounce the travel ban, declare Ottawa and other major cities a "sanctuary" for refugees and repeal the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement.
Under the agreement, refugees at land ports of entry are required to make their refugee claim in the first safe country they arrive in unless they qualify for an exception. The initial premise of the 2002 legislation was to better manage border crossings in both countries. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, it means that many refugee claimants who apply at a land border will be rejected by Canada without ever being able to present their refugee claim.
The U.S. is no longer a "safe" country, protesters argued Monday, with rising Islamophobia and racism represented in an executive order, signed Friday, barring everyone from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Libya from entering the United States for 90 days. An end to the agreement is advocated by Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Canadian Council for Refugees, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
"This past week has seen a flurry of signatures on unlawful, punitive, discriminatory, bigoted executive orders that have launched a war on refugees and formalized a policy of anti-Muslim discrimination in the U.S. government, and we say that cannot stand," said Amnesty International secretary general Alex Neve. "We cannot wait a single hour. It is a fictitious reality to continue to pretend that the U.S. is safe for refugees."
In unison, more than 1,000 protesters shouted: "No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here."
Islamophobia on the rise in Canada?
Police officers investigating the attack in Quebec City have yet to determine the motive behind what Trudeau called a "despicable act of terror" at the Centre culturel islamique de Quebec mosque on Sunday night, but some Canadians fear that Islamophobia is behind the shooting that left six people dead and 19 people injured, and launched Canada into a state of national mourning.
Adam Gilani, a third-year law student and former president of the University of Ottawa's Muslim Student Association, said he connects the shootings to what is happening in the U.S. In June last year, a pig's head was left at entrance to the mosque, and Gilani said Sunday's attack was not an isolated example.
"Quebec City is not a unique and kind of foreign place," Gilani told reporters. "These things can happen anywhere, and the one message I’d like to put out to my friends and colleagues and fellow citizens is to make sure you get out there, find those Muslims in your community and get to know them.”
With tears in her eyes, protester Mary-Jean Ferrier said she believes Trump "has emboldened some cowards to act in ways that are unacceptable."
"I’m just appalled," she told National Observer. That people would ever attack other people, especially in a place of worship, breaks my heart. I’m here to support them, so they know Canadians aren’t going to put up with this."
Federal government proceeding with caution
Ottawa RCMP officers estimated more than 1,100 people were at the peak of the two-hour protest that included baby strollers with signs that read "Babies for peace" and "Not in my lifetime," a man wearing a blonde wig and a Darth Vader mask who accused the U.S. of joining "the Dark Side."
"Today we stand together against those who want to divide us," former Ottawa-Centre MP Paul Dewar told the crowd. "We welcome those who need to seek refuge. We say to Mr. Trump, 'Your policies, your edicts are not welcome here, they don’t reflect our values and they do not reflect the values of Americans.' We know that. We say to President Trump: 'Rescind the travel ban now.'"
At a press conference on Parliament Hill Monday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he is being briefed regularly on the situation in Quebec City, and that the National Terrorism Threat Level for Canada remains at 'medium,' where it has stood since 2014.