Why are Muslim women in Edmonton being attacked? Details reveal a complicated history17 min read
She first noticed the man — dishevelled, in a sweatsuit and COVID mask, with piercing eyes — as she exited the LRT train at the last stop in south Edmonton. She wasn’t sure what to make of his stares — at first, she thought he was simply struck by seeing a beautiful Somali woman. Then she remembered her face was concealed behind a mask, a pair of oversized sunglasses and a hijab.
When Saida stepped off the escalator and arrived at her bus stop, she realized what was happening.
“I turn my body maybe a quarter of the way, and I see him,” she said. “He’s yelling at me, threatening my life.” He lunged at her, his fist cocked. “He says ‘you think I won’t f—ing kill you b—-? You think I won’t f—ing do it?’”
As soon as it started, the man wandered off. Saida couldn’t move. No one around her said anything. It wasn’t until the bus arrived and she saw the driver — a man with brown skin, like her — that she blurted out what happened. He understood, comforted her, and called over two peace officers.
All at once, the reality of what had happened washed over her.
“I was able to process it, and when I first processed it, I think I actually did have a mental breakdown,” she said. “I started crying, screaming.”
(Postmedia is identifying Saida by an alias to protect her and her family from harassment for speaking out.)
In the past year, Edmonton has witnessed a rash of hate attacks, most of them targeting Muslim women. In a span of six months, at least nine attacks were reported to police, seven of which resulted in criminal charges. They happened in parking lots, on the road, on the transit system and along pathways. After a particularly shocking assault in St. Albert, hundreds rallied in Edmonton’s Churchill Square to condemn the violence. Newly-elected mayor Amarjeet Sohi says the problem is his “top priority.”
But through it all, the answer to a fundamental question — why did these attacks happen? — has been elusive. Some have the hallmarks of unalloyed anti-Muslim hatred. Others, while no less destructive, have been more complicated.
In all but two of the cases that resulted in charges, the accused people were homeless or of no fixed address. The three defendants in those cases are Indigenous and were dealing with mental health issues, addictions, and — in at least two cases — the traumatic legacies of residential schools. Something about Edmonton’s history, mixed with its physical and psychic makeup, brought these attackers and these victims together in the midst of a global pandemic, with tragic and terrifying results.
People of Muslim faith have lived in Alberta as long as Alberta has been a province.
Ali Abouchadi, a Lebanese trader (and probably the first Muslim to speak Cree), settled in Lac La Biche in 1906. Al Rashid Mosque, the first mosque in Canada, opened in Edmonton in 1938. Since then, Alberta has seen a glittering array of Muslim “firsts,” including Canada’s first Muslim big city mayor, Muslim provincial cabinet minister, and Muslim lieutenant-governor.
Despite this, Muslims have long endured xenophobia.
Women who choose to cover themselves to conform to Islamic standards of modesty are the most conspicuous targets. After 9/11, the Edmonton Journal spoke to a young Muslim woman who said some of her friends were scared to wear hijabs in public. In 2017, after a Somali-Canadian man with a homemade ISIS flag attacked a police officer and four pedestrians, hijabi women said they were harassed on the street and, in one case, even struck over the head with a bottle.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims says at least 15 attacks on Muslim women have occurred in Edmonton and Calgary since December. Sameha Omer, director of legal affairs, said there is nothing new about such attacks. Many go unreported. “While the number of attacks against Muslim women during this time period may seem alarming, this is no surprise.”
The current wave of violence began Dec. 8, 2020, when a mother and daughter wearing hijabs were approached by a man as they sat in their car outside Southgate Centre mall. According to police, the man shouted racist obscenities, smashed the passenger side window with his fist, then attacked one of the women as she fled. When the other tried to help, he allegedly shoved her to the ground. According to a family member, the man shouted threats and obscenities including “Go back to your country,” “you f—ing Somalis,” the N-word and “I’m going to kill you.” The attack ended when mall patrons intervened.
News of similar attacks followed.
Days after the assault at Southgate, a 23-year-old Black woman wearing a hijab was menaced at a nearby transit centre by a woman swinging a shopping bag and allegedly shouting racial slurs. The following day, a Black man (who by all accounts is not Muslim), was attacked in his yard by a stranger. On Feb. 3, two women were assaulted near the University of Alberta Transit Centre. News of Saida’sattack at Century Park followed. In April, police laid charges in a road rage case that allegedly began with a driver making profane gestures at a hijabi woman travelling with her family.
All this was punctuated by one of the most horrific instances of alleged Islamophobic violence in Canadian history, when a London, Ont. man crashed a truck into a Pakistani-Canadian family, killing all but a 9-year-old boy.
Weeks later, two more Alberta women were assaulted. The women — sisters of Iraqi origin in their 20s — told police a man with a bandana over his face shouted racial slurs as they walked in a St. Albert park . He allegedly grabbed one of the sisters by the hijab and threw her to the ground, knocking her unconscious. He then shoved the second woman and held a knife to her throat.
The attacks terrorized Edmonton’s Muslim communities.
Women described feeling besieged and hyper vigilant. Some mosques began offering self-defence classes. Local leaders roundly condemned the violence. The root cause of these attacks is surely Islamophobia, but the exact mechanisms and impetuses remained obscure. Why, exactly, were these attacks happening now, in these specific places, to these specific women?
In a statement to Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, outgoing mayor Don Iveson blamed “systemic” factors including a culture of permissiveness towards hate. He later pointed to a February anti-mask march featuring tiki torches — which morphed into symbols of hate after the infamous white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.
“There are far too many … people that have been given license, in a variety of different ways, to spew their hatred in this community,” Iveson said.
Alberta’s problems with far-right extremism are well documented. In 2019, the Organization for the Prevention of Violence (OPV), a local anti-extremism centre, released a report which concluded Alberta has a disproportionate number of extremist elements, including “patriot” and militia groups who “primarily target visible minority, newcomer and refugee communities — Muslims in particular.”
The OPV said the rise of these groups coincided with Alberta’s economic downturn and the 2015 elections of the federal Liberals and provincial NDP. The flames were fanned in some cases by government policy, such as the Harper government’s attempt to ban niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. In 2018, in a show of how emboldened Islamophobes had become, the Edmonton chapter of the Soldiers of Odin held a candlelit “ rally against Islam ” outside Commonwealth Stadium. Two years later, a man staked out Al Rashid , ate a bacon cheeseburger and mused on Facebook Live about a “Ramadan Bombathon.” Hate graffiti is a semi-regular occurrence: this spring, someone scrawled “kill all Muslims” in the elevator of an Edmonton apartment building, and an east-side mosque found a swastika on its building.
“I think people are unaware of who is actually doing these attacks, and how nuanced it actually is. It’s not black and white…”HAIQA CHEEMA
Most agree the COVID-19 pandemic, which ushered in a surge in anti-Asian racism, played a role in the violence. Irfan Chaudhry, a hate crimes researcher at MacEwan University, said COVID has shrunk people’s social media bubbles and contributed to extreme thinking.
“In times of duress … you see people kind of (revert) to some of their default, stereotypical assumptions around certain groups,” he said.
COVID also reshaped Edmonton’s urban environment. Downtown and other hubs have been drained of workers. Edmonton’s transit system, which already had a poor reputation for safety, lost half its ridership in year-one of the pandemic. An Edmonton Transit Service official attributed the recent rash of crime to the loss of “natural surveillance” that comes with more people using the system.
Stephen Camp, a retired Edmonton police officer and member of the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee, said upswings in hate-based violence tend to coincide with divisive news events. In the early 2000s, Edmonton saw a surge in hate crimes against the gay and lesbian communities, coinciding with parliamentary debates about legalizing gay marriage, and after 9/11. Camp noted the Edmonton attacks took place in the aftermath of the U.S. election, culminating in the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.
“You have a lot of individuals that may be wanting to hang on to the old power structure, or the old ways of our country, that are lashing out at easily targeted individuals,” he said.
But in her experience as a hijabi woman and public policy advisor on hate crimes, they overlooked a crucial fact: that oftentimes, those who lash out at visibly Muslim women are marginalized themselves.
Cheema’s family are Pakistani-Canadian. When she was 16, her dad, a taxi-driver, was severely beaten by a fare evader in a hate-motivated attack. A regular transit user, she’s lost track of the number of times people have yelled racial slurs or tried to intimidate her. Usually, it was “someone that was going through some sort of a crisis,” she said. Often, the person appeared to be Indigenous.
Cheema spent a long time unpacking that reality. It is a difficult conversation: she didn’t want to downplay the violence experienced by Muslim women, nor did she want to come across like she was pitting one community against another, or ignoring the role played by white supremacy.
In May, she posted her thoughts on Twitter .
“I worry that the attacks on visible Muslim women in Alberta will be used to justify more policing and increase(s) to hate crimes units etc,” she wrote. “A lot of us think that it’s white supremacist(s) that are attacking us. And part of me would be more at ease if that was the actual case.”
She went on. “More often than not, it’s members of our unhoused community and those dealing with mental health and addictions who attack. Many of them are Indigenous.”
“I absolutely don’t want them prosecuted. The solution isn’t to put people in jail or fine them … I don’t want anyone using ‘my safety’ to prosecute our most vulnerable.”
A Statistics Canada study released in March found the “vast majority” of perpetrators are men, with a median age of 28. Those who committed hate crimes against Muslims tended to be older, at 44. The study did not track race or Indigenous background, making it hard to say whether Edmonton’s string of attacks involving Indigenous accused is an aberration. Attacks on Asian people in the United States revealed similar complexities: according to Voice of America News , most of the people charged with hate attacks against Asian Americans in New York City last year were Black or Hispanic. Camp, for his part, said those arrested when he was a member of the Edmonton police hates crime unit tended to be white.
Of the five people charged in the Edmonton attacks, at least three are Indigenous. Two have family members who attended residential schools. At the time of their arrests, all three defendants were homeless. Of the 2,792 people currently without a home in Edmonton, 60 per cent are Indigenous — a phenomena experts say is a direct legacy of residential schools. Some of the violence against Muslim women overlapped with discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.
The most prolific offender, 45-year-old Shane Edward Tremblay , physically or verbally attacked three Muslim women on two days in early 2021. “I will kill you and tear off what you’re wearing,” he told one.
Tremblay is Indigenous. He grew up around Muslims in Lac La Biche, Ali Abouchadi’s old home base. Tremblay’s father died when he was three. Left to raise him was his mother, whose parents attended residential schools. Five years before the attacks, Tremblay lost his sister, went on disability and started using meth. When police arrested him, he was sleeping in a transit station.
Tremblay attributed his behaviour to a drug-induced psychosis, which made him paranoid and kept him awake for days. Advocates for people who use drugs say Edmonton’s drug supply is increasingly contaminated due to supply issues caused by COVID-19 border restrictions. As a result, many can no longer tell which drugs they’re taking, leading to a spike in overdoses.
In June, Tremblay pleaded guilty to eight crimes and was sentenced to seven months in jail. “I know about racism in this city,” he insisted tearfully. “I’m not a racist or hateful person.” Judge Terry Matchett accepted that intoxication played a role in Tremblay’s crimes, but concluded it wasn’t “happenstance” he singled out three Muslim women.
So far, Matchett is the only judge to conclude an attacker’s actions were motivated by antipathy towards Muslims — however complicated the circumstance. Rene Ladouceur, the woman accused in the Southgate LRT incident, was acquitted of the assault after the Crown found “insufficient evidence to prove (her) actions were motivated by hate.” A Métis woman who also had family members in the residential school system, Ladouceur pleaded guilty to other crimes including spitting on a stranger, threatening a 7-Eleven employee and starting a grass fire in Louise McKinney Park.
The third defendant, Joseph Gladue, admitted in March to assaulting a 48-year-old Black man in Parkdale. Gladue is Indigenous and “grew up on the streets, basically,” but neither his background nor the role hate played in his crimes were discussed during sentencing .
Three of the cases are still unresolved. Richard Bradley Stevens, the man accused in the Southgate Centre attack, skipped court and is wanted by police. Andrew Timothy Brown, arrested following the alleged road rage incident, is scheduled to go to trial next October. Both have home addresses listed on their court records.
As for the attack on the sisters in St. Albert, police have not identified a suspect as of this writing.
A whiff of pepper spray
Alberta’s justice minister has promised to crack down on hate-based violence. In 2020, United Conservative MLA Kaycee Madu became the first Black minister of justice in Canadian history. He has since announced a new provincial hate crimes unit and grants to beef up security at religious buildings.
When it comes to assaults on Muslim women, Madu’s policies have been met with mixed reviews.
In July, Madu sent a letter to the federal government, asking for a stronger stance on hate-based crime. Specifically, he asked Canada to implement mandatory minimum sentences for people who commit hate-motivated attacks — citing Tremblay’s seven-month sentence as “clearly unacceptable” and part of a “pattern of leniency.”
Madu also asked his federal counterparts to de-list pepper spray as a prohibited weapon, to allow people to defend themselves against hate and “drug-fuelled” attacks. The proposal was immediately controversial. Chaudhry called it a “terrible idea” that no one in the community asked for. He noted pepper spray can easily backfire even in the hands of a trained user. More importantly, why should women be expected to carry weapons to live their lives?
The City of Edmonton’s response is evolving. Earlier this year, council pledged to improve transit security and make it a finable offence to harass someone for their race or religion. The new council — a historically diverse group elected Oct. 18 — had yet to meet as of this writing. However, the issue is likely high on its agenda: Sohi, Edmonton’s first non-white mayor, has promised action on hate crimes within his first hundred days.
To critics, some of the solutions put forward so far seem to presuppose a certain kind of attacker: a blathering, unhinged racist who deserves a shot of pepper spray and a lengthy jail sentence.
Cheema worries too heavy a focus on prosecution, incarceration and surveillance will further criminalize Indigenous people, who are over-represented in prisons and among those ticketed on transit . She thinks the attacks on Muslim women should be seen, in part, as a housing, mental health and addictions issue.
“I think people are unaware of who is actually doing these attacks, and how nuanced it actually is. It’s not black and white, which can be very difficult to articulate, because you want to say, you know, ‘this is wrong.’ But it’s (also) very nuanced and difficult.”
Many of those interviewed for this story see a direct link between government policy toward Indigenous people — including residential schools and the child welfare system — and a subset of attacks on Muslim women.
Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, sees the attacks involving Indigenous defendants as products of poverty, “intergenerational” trauma and a “very subtle pitting of one community (against) another.”
“I hear in my own community, about all of the things these newcomers get that they don’t get,” she said. The idea that people in those circumstances should be subject to stricter prosecutions or defensive violence “is like throwing gas on the fire.”
“You have severely marginalized and traumatized people who, for whatever reason, believe that this group of newcomers to this land are somehow treated better than they are. It fosters a seed of hate, that isn’t even based on anything that’s real or factual.”
Alberta had more residential schools than any other province. The last closed in the 1990s. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse were endemic . Children were punished for speaking their languages. Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse, executive director of Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation, said when students weren’t neglected, they were indoctrinated in self-hatred
Partly as a result , Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented as both victims and accused persons in the criminal justice system. Courts have long treated direct or familial experience with residential schools as a mitigating factor in sentencing. Hate crimes targeting Indigenous people are less common relative to other groups, but underreporting is a near certainty given the mistrust some Indigenous people feel toward police.
Those who survived often left the schools with minimal life skills. Calahoo-Stonehouse’s nookum (Cree for grandmother) attended residential school from age three to 18 and left not knowing how to cook or hold a baby.
“How do you learn to parent, if you were never parented?” she asked. “How do you learn to nurture or show love if none of those things were ever given to you during your brain’s most formative years?”
The violence facing Muslim women in Edmonton is a complex knot. How do we begin to untie it?
Saida thinks police need to overhaul how they address hate-motivated crime. While she eventually developed a positive relationship with an officer in the hate crimes unit, her initial 911 call was a nightmare. She felt the evaluator was dismissive and didn’t take her seriously (after Saida complained, an audit concluded the evaluator “demonstrated a high level of professionalism throughout the call.”) Saida only reached the hate crimes unit after her local councillor connected her with Iveson.
Saida believes the hate crimes investigator did his best, but her attacker was never found. The incident was caught on surveillance, but the man’s mask rendered him virtually anonymous.
Saida feels sorry for her attacker, who based on his appearance was intoxicated and probably homeless. She forgives him and hopes he gets help, but still believes better security and some kind of punishment to condemn the behaviour are needed.
“They need to be held accountable to the highest degree, whatever is fit for that individual at that time,” she said. “But I also think they should receive help.”
Wati Rahmat, director of Sisters’ Dialogue, a support and advocacy group formed in response to the attacks, believes there needs to be more culturally tailored counselling services for women who and communities who experience hate. She also advocates for a public awareness campaign to draw attention to the problem, affirm the dignity of Muslim women and encourage bystanders to intervene when they see a woman in trouble.
“You (could) have posters of Muslim women — just seeing them, taking up the space, reclaiming the space,” she said.
Rahmat is critical of an enforcement-only approach, calling it a “double-edged sword” for racialized communities. In the medium-term, Sisters’ Dialogue is creating a pilot safe-walk program with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues.
“Our approach has always been to rely on community — not on enforcement,” she said.
Omar Yaqub, executive director of Edmonton’s Islamic Family and Social Services Association, believes we should focus on the systems that make Muslim women (and, in some cases, their attackers) vulnerable in the first place. In his view, the attacks reveal shortcomings in Edmonton’s social safety net for the homeless, as well as its transit system. Yaqub argued the city’s transit redesign and LRT expansion prioritize growing suburbs over established communities with substandard transit. “If you’re waiting longer at a transit station to get a bus home, you’re going to be more exposed to potential violence,” he said.
Yaqub added that even newcomers who don’t speak English quickly realize the marginalization of Indigenous people in Edmonton, a reflection of how deeply encoded it is in the city’s DNA. IFSS and Bent Arrow often partner on projects aimed at breaking down barriers between their communities. When refugees from Syria began arriving in Canada, some were greeted by local First Nations singers and dancers. Whiskeyjack said such interactions “serve to dispel those narratives, to dispel those things that they’re being taught very quickly when they get here.”
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm that comes from those interactions, like ‘wow, you guys think like we do. Your ceremonies are very similar to our ceremonies, the way you look at the world is very similar.’”
Shalini Sinha, chair of Edmonton’s municipal anti-racism advisory committee, said we need society to become “more aware of the processes and impacts of racism. We need these conversations happening in people’s families.”
Stressing she was speaking for herself and not the committee, Sinha said she believes this is not a problem for Indigenous communities alone to solve. “The Indigenous community has been treated with systemic violence, generationally,” she said. When people don’t have access to healing and support, “we can see why they would behave the same way they were treated.”
She too was critical of a punitive approach for such offenders.
“You convict that person, you send them to jail — what does that actually do? Did that make that woman feel better? Maybe it did. (But) is that long-term?”
An act of devotion
Saida began wearing her hijab when she was 12, much to the surprise of her parents. Her mother didn’t wear one until later in life, while her father made painstakingly clear the decision was hers. Both assumed their daughter loved her hair too much to cover it.
“I was such a strong little feminist at that age,” said Saida, now a university student in her mid-20s. “I was like, you know what? I’m going to prove you wrong. I’m going to wear it tomorrow to school, and forever.”
The Century Park attack was far from the first time Saida received negative attention for wearing a hijab. Unwanted comments are a fact of life for women who cover.
“I’ve had women come up to me in grocery stores and say things like, ‘you know, now that you’re here, in Canada, you don’t have to wear that anymore,’” she said. Usually, she is too desperate for the exchange to end to tell them she was born here.
Saida continues to sort through the emotional wreckage of her attack. She remembers feeling her independence had been stripped away, all strides she was making in her personal and professional lives erased
Like many Muslim women, Saida’s reasons for wearing a hijab are complex. She loves being a hijabi and seeing other women displaying their faith, and while wearing one in Canada in 2021 is far from easy, the difficulties haven’t undermined her devotion.
“It’s like a strong, strong attachment to God when we’re wearing it,” she concluded. “You don’t feel that bond every single day — but when you do? It’s amazing.”