Shafia deaths stir immigration debate

By Dennis Gruending

Canal deaths stir debateThree members of the Shafia family (father, mother and teenaged son) appeared via video conference in a Kingston courtroom on August 6 to face charges of first-degree murder in the mysterious deaths earlier this summer of four female family members. So far little hard information has been made public about what happened but there is, nonetheless, a great deal of speculation. Christie Blatchford, a writer for The Globe and Mail newspaper, managed in one column to create a narrative that links the Kingston deaths with misogyny, honour killings, Islam, terrorists, wimpy Canadian police, and what she sees as Canada’s failed public policy for the assimilation of immigrants. Blatchford often writes on crime and the courts. She has also done several tours of Afghanistan, where she was embedded with Canadian troops, and she has written a sympathetic book about them. I want to focus on Blatchford’s column as an example of how the debate about immigration and multiculturalism is sometimes framed in Canada – but first I will present a few of the facts that have emerged.

On the morning of June 30, a car was found submerged in the Rideau Canal near Kingston. Inside were the bodies of Zainab Shafia, 19, her sisters Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13. The fourth body was that of 50-year-old Rona Amir Mohammed. On the same day Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba and their son Hamid, 18, presented at the Kingston police station to say that one of their family cars and four family members had gone missing after they had all stopped to spend the night at a Kingston hotel on the way home to Montreal from a trip to Niagara Falls. The Shafias speculated in later statements to the media that their eldest daughter might have taken the car without permission for a late night joy ride and somehow ended up in the canal. They said that she had removed the vehicle without permission on previous occasions even though she had no driver’s licence. That did not explain how or why Zainab’s two sisters and the 50-year-old Rona Amir Mohammed were in the car and the canal as well. Mr. Shafia had described the older woman as being his cousin but later people from France claiming to be her relatives said that she was actually his first wife. The Shafias had emigrated from their native Afghanistan to Dubai and from there to Montreal and she had moved with them. Mr. Shafia, his second wife and son were arrested on July 22 and held without bail. They appeared in court briefly on August 6 and are due for another video appearance on August 14. The family’s three other surviving children, all under age 16, have now been taken into custody by child protection authorities in Montreal.

Christie Blatchford’s column

There has been speculation in media stories that 19-year-old Zainab Shafia had defied her parents’ wishes by dating (and some say secretly marrying) a young man of Pakistani origin in Montreal. There has been much other media speculation, none of it yet put to the burden of proof, as will happen before the courts. The following is a sampling drawn from Blatchford’s column on July 24: “Was this a gaudy example of those magnificently misnamed ‘honour killings’, the extrajudicial killings of people by their own kin for real or perceived infractions of the Islamic moral code – almost invariably by women, often involving alleged sexual or behavioural transgressions, like showing a bit of ankle to a male not a relative?” She went on to describe how Kingston police, when prompted, would not talk about honour killings in this case but did mention “the cultural issue.” That led Blatchford to recall how Toronto police “bragged of not uttering the ‘M word’ (Muslim) at a press conference held to announce the arrests of a group of charged in a terror plot.” That, in turn, led Blatchford to quote a colleague with experience in Afghanistan as saying that, as a matter of policy, Canada “tolerates a partial or some would say negligible assimilation or even acceptance of our Canadian norms, beliefs, fundamental principles.”

Were the Kingston deaths so-called honour killings? I don’t know and nor does Blatchford although that is what she implies. There is no justification, ever, for such killings or for any rationalization that allows men to use coercion and violence against women. Our laws say so and so does our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Everyone in Canada is expected to obey the law. It is worth saying that these killings, although despicable, are extremely rare in Canada, something Blatchford could well have mentioned. What of the link between these murders and the “Islamic moral code”?  There is no doubt that Muslim fundamentalists connect their domination of women with what they perceive as the truth of their religion, and the consequences can be dire – acid thrown in the faces of girls attending school in Afghanistan, and yes, honour killings.

The unfortunate truth is that men have used the power of religion for millennia to force women into submission. Some fathers of the Christian church, including Pope St. Gregory, Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, said women should be ashamed of themselves for merely being women, that they were slow, unstable, naïve and useful only for “animal sex and motherhood.”  Some will argue that Christian churches don’t hold those views today. I would respond that while most Christians do not view women as inferior, a fundamentalist minority continues to do so. I would argue, as well, that most Muslims in Canada likely cannot be described as fundamentalists. The problem is with fundamentalism more than with religions, although most religions still have a long way to go in promoting gender equality.

And what explains the deaths of so many other women at the hands of men in Canada? I recall the case of a young man in Ottawa who murdered his former partner using a powerful crossbow. There was another Ottawa case where a man strangled his companion, a young medical doctor, and later hung himself in his prison cell. There is the medical doctor in Windsor who stalked and murdered a nurse on his hospital staff, then took his own life. There was no reportage about the religious affiliation of these three men and most likely religion did not play a part in what they did. These are sometimes described in Canada as crimes of passion but they are as senseless and gruesome as honour killings and the victims are every bit as dead. This is all about men who believe that they can or should have total control over the lives of women.

Blatchford criticizes police

Blatchford tweaks the Kingston police chief for reacting cautiously to a question about whether the Shafia deaths were honour killings. The chief was right to be cautious and to leave such a description, if indeed it is accurate, to be presented and tested in court. Blatchford and other commentators would do well to exercise similar prudent judgment in what they say and write – but they are paid to have opinions and to be minor celebrities. Blatchford ridicules the behaviour of Toronto police in the case of 18 young men who were charged in a terror plot in June 2006. She would have had them named up front as being Muslims, but that information did emerge in the trials when it could be placed in a context. Mr. Justice John Sproat said evidence that a terrorist group existed was overwhelming and that it was “motivated by an interpretation of Islam.” That is obviously a concern but police, who needed no help from newspaper columnists, intercepted the group. Having the men described immediately as Muslims would have had no positive effect on public safety. Two have pleaded guilty and trails of several others are pending but, significantly, charges against seven of the accused have been stayed or dropped. The point is that the courts are in a far better position than are columnists who shoot from the lip to decide whether religion played a contributing role in these cases.

Debating multiculturalism

Finally, in her July 24 column Blatchford implies that Canada’s public policies are at least partly to blame for crimes such as the one the Shafias are accused of committing. The criticism is that Canada fails to assimilate immigrants and that this nation’s policies do not work as well as the “melting pot” approach of countries such as the United States. This is a point of legitimate public policy debate. Blatchford and some others have a point of view but it’s not necessarily an accurate one. On June 2, I wrote in Pulpit and Politics about Professor Wil Kymlicka’s comments that multiculturalism works in Canada and some prominent Canadian commentators have it wrong when they warn that it is failing.

Kymlicka is the Canada research chair in political philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston and an expert on immigration and multiculturalism. He says that “cross national” research indicates that Canada is more successful than most countries in the integration of immigrants and their children. Despite those successes, Kymlicka says, some influential Canadians pursue a narrative that focuses upon failure, backlash and retreat. They say that multiculturalism has gone too far and they blame it for a variety of social ills, including the creation of parallel societies, political terrorism and honour killings. Blatchford writes: “What seems to underlie these murders, what appears to be the real bottom line context, is the belief that men are superior to women. Canadians don’t believe that, do not accept the core belief of many ethnic groups that men are superior to women.”  There is misogyny among immigrants groups, of course, as there is among native born Canadians, but Kymlicka takes the longer-term view that multiculturalism works, that many new immigrants and certainly their children see Canada and its values as something to cherish.

7 thoughts on “Shafia deaths stir immigration debate

  1. I wish the intelligent analysis of this issue found in your blog were more widely available through other media sources. Merran Proctor


  2. A thoughtful, thorough and rational response to a type of news reporting that’s little more than opinionated and pretentious tabloid coverage.


  3. I agree this is a great post and the linkage between religion and submission or inferiority of women needs to be in the media as in this blog. It still continues also as you say in Christianity. And what about Bountiful BC, where female children are so abused? (and women too) This of course includes the boys who are kicked out when they reach puberty. This done in the name of religion! and seemingly no one seems to care all that much.


  4. That was great. Unfortunately thoughtful and intelligent writing doesn’t sell newspapers.

    More adjectives could get you a column at the Globe.

    Interesting how quickly the frame shifts as soon as a feared minority is involved.


  5. Many thanks, Dennis,

    You did well to draw attention to the media coverage, in particular that of Ms. Blatchford. The charges in the case itself are, of course, profoundly disturbing, and this kind of media coverage, far from shedding any light, serves to compound public misunderstanding and fears of “the other”. Since the “Globe and Mail” has, historically, aimed to be sober and responsible in its reporting of the news, I hope you will present this article to the Editor and seek to engage him in consideration of his paper’s coverage. This kind of scurrilous prejudice mongering is just not acceptable.



  6. A thought-provoking, calm and interesting review of issues.
    Much preferred to the incendiary musings of Ms. Blatchford.


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