March 10, 2016 - 7:00 AM
VANCOUVER - Legal groups and lawyers in Vancouver have banded together to launch a hotline for Muslims who have faced discrimination in British Columbia because of their religion.
The Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline is supported by various organizations including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association and groups that represent black, Asian and South Asian lawyers.
The hotline is co-ordinated by the non-profit group Access Pro Bono, which has more than a dozen lawyers on its roster specializing in areas such as immigration, civil and human rights, and employment law.
They will provide free confidential legal advice for people who have faced harassment, threats or violence because they are Muslim or were perceived to be Muslim.
Aleem Bharmal, who works at the Community Legal Assistance Society and will provide his services as a human rights lawyer, said many victims of Islamophobia face cultural and language barriers and may not be fully aware of their legal rights but the hotline will give them better access to the justice system.
"This will cover everything from the defacement of a mosque to physical attacks on the street to verbal abuse at a bus stop to workplace isolation or bullying to denial of services at a retail outlet to unfair profiling by authorities," he said.
Krisha Dhaliwal of the South Asian Bar Association of B.C. said law students have also joined the cause to combat discrimination against Muslims and other people of colour.
Dhaliwal said the groups started planning a hotline last year when they noticed an increase in calls from Muslims when the issue of whether the niqab should be banned at the swearing of the citizenship oath by new Canadians became an issue during the federal election.
At the same time, the unfolding Syrian refugee crisis spiked anti-Muslim sentiments in some parts of the country, Dhaliwal said, adding Muslims under attack are often too afraid to call police.
"We want to make sure that people know that at least they can approach a lawyer if they don't want to go to police," said Dhaliwal, who is an immigration lawyer.
Amira Elghawaby, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said Muslim women who wear a niqab or a hijab are victimized more often than Muslim men but about two thirds of incidents are never reported.
"It's rather unfortunate, but what we're noting, and what Statistics Canada's most recent data show, is that there is a rise in anti-Muslim incidents," she said from Ottawa.
"Canadian Muslims are looking for and need support," she said, adding there's typically an immediate spike in discrimination after a terrorist attack allegedly involving Muslims.
"Right after the Paris bombing, within 24 hours there was a mosque in Peterborough that was fire bombed and a woman walking to school to pick up her children was beaten up in broad daylight."
So far across Canada this year, 10 hate crimes against Muslims have been reported to police in Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Alberta, compared to three at the same time last year, Elghawaby said.
They include vandalism as well as verbal, physical and online harassment, she said.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016