Last week, as the world was grappling with the assault on the world’s most powerful democracy in Washington, a quiet milestone was reached just north of the US border. Canada appointed Omar Alghabra, an immigrant of Arab origin, as its transport minister.
Born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family who arrived in Canada in 1989 to study engineering, the new minister has spent the last 15 years in politics, as an MP for Mississauga, a city neighbouring Toronto, as well as in various official roles in the federal government. He was also a top aide to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, serving as his parliament secretary.
It has been a difficult half-decade for those of us who believe that the way forward in the world is to embrace the rich tapestry of our societies, rather than take refuge in small-minded nationalism and xenophobia. The rise of the far right, exacerbated in North America during the Donald Trump administration and throughout Europe in the wake of the refugee crisis, created a new, protectionist normal. So it’s important to celebrate the wins for openness and tolerance when they happen.
Mr Alghabra’s portfolio is one riddled with challenges, chief among them how to safely revive the airline industry after the pandemic, with travel restrictions upending carriers and leading to huge job losses. Over the holidays, dozens of flights arriving in various ports in Canada have been flagged as having at least one passenger onboard who was infected with coronavirus. Rules to allow the resumption of flights safely with new testing requirements, as well as a plan to protect the industry from collapse, will be high on Mr Alghabra’s agenda.
But together with the arduous task is what his appointment signifies – that newcomers are not just welcome, but that it is possible to serve at the highest levels regardless of creed or ethnicity.
There are, of course, obstacles along the road. Mr Alghabra’s appointment was met with shameful dog whistles from the Bloc Quebecois, one of the largest parties in Parliament that often embodies Quebec nationalist values. In a statement that managed to convey cravenness, xenophobia and fecklessness all at once, the Bloc’s chief issued a statement questioning Mr Alghabra’s alleged proximity to political Islamists because he once headed the Canadian Arab Federation, a collective promoting the interests of Arab-Canadians. The Bloc’s chief, Yves-Francois Blanchet, said that “questions arise” about the minister because of his previous role, without bothering to make specific allegations. When pressed, he followed up with a nonsensical argument that his questions were legitimate and were made out of a concern for the separation of church and state.
Mr Blanchet’s insinuations were especially troubling given the apparent consequences of the persistent othering of those who do not fit the perceived mould of what it means to be part of Western society, whether it is American or European or Canadian, which for xenophobes in these places often means a person who isn’t white. That a statement like that was published in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riots in the US reinforces the idea that this kind of rhetoric is here to stay, and that some politicians will happily stoke the embers of division if they think it will win them a few more votes. It’s disheartening that it happened so soon after so much hatred was unleashed in Washington.
But enough of Mr Blanchet’s nonsense. I prefer to turn to the words of Mr Alghabra himself. A little over a year ago, in the Before Times when we worried about more pedestrian things, I interviewed him for an article about Syrians in Canada. Many were newly eligible for citizenship after arriving under a Trudeau government initiative offering resettlement for tens of thousands of Syrians who fled the war that began in 2015, and Mr Alghabra was one of the Canadian officials who went to meet the newcomers.
I asked him about what it meant to be Canadian, and he made the case for diversity in society. Newcomers, he argued, were in fact among the most patriotic constituents he’d ever seen, precisely because they they have a unique sense of the opportunities being in Canada presents them with, and the totality of their rights here after they might have fled conflict, persecution or poverty abroad.
“The opponents of this argument will say that all this diversity fragments us and disunites us, and it’s much better that we all rally around one set of values and one set of identities, but it never works,” he said. “You’re forcing people to hide who they really are. Diversity is merely a recognition of the fact; it’s not a manufactured thing. It’s a reflection of who we are. You can look the other way and pretend that we’re not diverse or you can come to terms with the fact that we’re diverse and come up with ideas of how we can embrace and harness it, rather than pretend that it doesn’t exist or weakens us.”
It is sad that we don’t have more people like Mr Alghabra running things in the Middle East. But there is the promise of his rise, that such things are possible no matter where fate decreed you were born.
Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National