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Mushtaq: Extremist actions during blockades should be our wake-up call


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After a long seven days, the Ambassador Bridge blockade finally ended.

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Although the blockade itself is physically over, it has peeled back a concerning layer of our society.

There is no doubt the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been difficult for all of us. From job losses, business closures, virus infections and many deaths, we have been through a lot.

But it is difficult for me to truly understand why this group decided to take their own community hostage, cut off parts of the west Windsor neighbourhood from the city and strangle the single-most important economic border crossing between the U.S. and Canada — also so integral to our own local economy.

Friends and I joked somewhat if a group of local Muslims had shown up en masse in trucks and heavy machinery to shut down the border with the same mixed bag of grievances as this convoy, the blockade would not have lasted very long.

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Gallows humour or something like it.

But that is the thing: the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks led to a massively expanded national security framework on both sides of the border. Muslim communities were unfairly under surveillance left, right and centre.

No-fly lists really took off, no pun intended. Law enforcement made sweeping generalizations about Muslims which meant investigations and subsequent enforcement reflected these biases, problematically so. Mistrust in many communities was rampant due to the problematic use of informants. Portrayals of Muslims in pop culture were stereotypical at best for years to follow.

I am not arguing for any of this to happen again. I had serious concerns about the implications of the Emergencies Act. I most definitely would never wish for the violation of civil liberties or police brutality against any protestors when I have witnessed first-hand how harmful that can be.

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What I do know is there appeared to be a privilege granted to those who were able to lay siege to the capital city of this country for three weeks. Or those who shut down an international border crossing and key trade route for an entire week. Or convoy leaders whose ranks included former police and those with military experience to help guide them.

Everything was seemingly allowed to play out despite the shutdown of local businesses, schools and automotive manufacturing plants.

Protest is a hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Protest, however, is usually aimed at those in power such as elected officials, not those in the neighbourhood trying to cross Huron Church Road to grocery shop or pick up prescriptions. Or those who attend a nearby mosque, but had to cancel Friday prayers because of a planned protest.

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Or your own neighbours and co-workers who had to deal with yet another week of lost shifts.

The freedom convoy itself, as is becoming more widely recognized, is marred by many nefarious actors who were able to exponentially raise their profile, raise an excessive amount of funds and access mainstream media coverage.

By no means does every person who participated in the blockades fall under that category or should be labelled as racist.

But it is telling how several key organizers had links to right-wing extremist groups with histories of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments. The flying of Nazi and Confederate flags was clearly noticeable during the occupations, along with the intense harassment of journalists.

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How none of these factors were a moment of reflection for participants is problematic.

The Ottawa siege began on the fifth anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting — a cruel irony when you consider that many of the perpetrators had far-right and white nationalist views.

We have managed to say never again about a lot of things in this country, yet these very things keep happening despite the best of intentions.

Maybe these blockades and the capital siege will serve as the wake-up call Canadians have needed.

Maybe this will be the year we finally take white nationalist, far-right and anti-government extremism seriously in this country.

Maybe this will actually be the year of never again. One can only hope.

Sarah Mushtaq is a millennial who writes about race, gender and life in today’s changing world.

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