Her roots in Canada stretch back through her francophone mother to the 1600s. Last week, wearing her Islamic face veil – the niqab, which has become a central issue in the federal election – she says she was trying to enter Shoppers Drug Mart at Toronto’s Fairview Mall when a man carrying a liquor-store bag blocked her path and then drove his elbow hard into her shoulder, in front of her two daughters, ages nine and four.
“It hurt, yo,” Safira Merriman, 30, said in a Facebook post describing the incident.
The identity issue playing out in election debates and in courtrooms is now being felt in the streets, shopping malls and on social media, as disparaging remarks and even outright assaults draw attention to a charged political environment.
“On social media, already we’ve seen a huge spike of what appears to be anti-Muslim sentiment being expressed,” said Amira Elghawaby, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims in Ottawa. She mentioned a Montreal website that posted a 15-minute montage of “people spewing anti-Muslim” feeling.
“This issue around the niqab has put Islam and Muslims in an extremely negative light. The entire community has been tarred with this brush of not wanting to join the Canadian family.”
While most Canadians are respectful, she added, the identity issue is “being used as a political football, and that has real ramifications for people’s sense of belonging and safety.”
The incident involving Ms. Merriman is not the only example of physical contact. Last week in Montreal, two teenagers reportedly pulled the hijab, or head scarf, of a pregnant woman, causing her to fall. Quebec’s National Assembly responded by passing a unanimous resolution against Islamophobia.
“It’s very similar to what happened in Quebec during the charter of values debate, when there was a huge increase in violence against women and human-rights violations,” University of Ottawa law professor Natasha Bakht said in an interview. “What’s happening with the niqab becoming this huge issue is unnecessary resentment.”
Quebec’s separatist Parti Québécois government introduced the values charter in 2013 to ban the wearing of religious clothing by public-sector employees. Police reports of hate crimes against Muslims across Canada that year – the last year for which Statistics Canada offers figures – rose to 65 incidents from 45 the year before; no other group experienced an increase in hate crimes that year. The PQ was defeated in an election and the charter did not become law.
In the current federal campaign, the Conservatives have made the niqab an issue, saying women should not be allowed to take a citizenship oath while their faces are veiled. Two courts have ruled that their attempts to block the face veil are unlawful. Both the NDP and the Liberals have opposed the government’s position on the niqab, and in Quebec, where the New Democrats were dominant, they appear to have lost support as a result.
Ms. Merriman may confound expectations about women who wear the Islamic face veil. She is a personal fitness trainer (only of women, in private homes) who, before taking up the niqab a year ago, was a part-time model. She uses Facebook and LinkedIn. She is a graduate of the University of Manitoba. Her mother, Lucienne Chateauneuf of Winnipeg, the director of a francophone seniors organization, and father, Bert Merriman, who came to Canada a half-century ago as a child from Guyana, both consider themselves Christian.
In an interview, Ms. Merriman, who was born in Winnipeg and was primarily raised there, said she married a Muslim man and, three years ago, embraced the faith, donning a hijab. Her husband asked her not to wear a niqab, she said.
“My husband was adamant: ‘Don’t put it on, don’t put it on, don’t put it on.’” He was afraid she would become a target for abuse, she said, adding: “It’s a choice. No woman I’ve ever met who has the niqab on has been forced to put it on. They’ve all chosen to put it on out of respect for themselves. A lot of people don’t realize Islam is a religion that gives women the highest degree of respect. We are protected in so many different ways.”
Her message to the country, she said, is: “Don’t work on assumptions. Instead of jumping to the stereotype and attacking with words, attacking with your hands, attacking with your glares, ask. Because we’re more than happy to answer. We want you to ask.”
Ms. Chateauneuf said she accepts her daughter’s choice of wearing a niqab. “I think people have to let go of their fears, their non-acceptance, their intolerance of others. This is Canada. I’m a Christian and she’s a Muslim. That is her choice. People have to learn to accept each other and not let our fears impeach our relationships. For me, it’s about the heart of a person.”
Of the assault on her daughter, she said, “It has been a fear of mine for a long time, because people are so hateful.” She became too choked up to speak.
Mr. Merriman said he pondered coming to Toronto and lying in wait for his daughter’s attacker at the mall. “And with my two grandbabies there, a so-called man would physically assault a woman? I don’t think of him as a man. It tears me up inside.”
With a report from Simona Chiose
Editor’s note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly spelt the first name for the spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims in Ottawa. This version has been corrected.
SEAN FINE – JUSTICE WRITER
Globe and Mail (Correction included)
Published Sunday, Oct. 04, 2015 9:34PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Oct. 05, 2015 12:27AM EDT