Relax — 13 kids at Toronto City Hall is not a Muslim takeover: Paradkar

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SHAFAQNA – Some see the city’s decision to support a Muslim Youth Fellowship internship program as evidence of special treatment for Muslims.

Toronto’s righteous prophets of doom were thrown into a tizzy after a recent motion by city council seemed to confirm their fears.

The city’s Oct. 31 decision to support a Muslim Youth Fellowship internship program offered them more evidence of special treatment for Muslims, proof of liberal blindness to the dangers of Islamic takeover of our society that would eventually — mark their words — replace the beloved maple leaf with a crescent moon and star.

Their hyperventilation is over 13 part-time internship positions in city councillors’ offices hosted by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) in partnership with DawaNet, a large Muslim community organization in Mississauga. The interns will work 12 hours a week for 12 weeks starting in January 2018.

“The fact we have so much reaction to a program that is a $10,000 investment to develop leadership is a testament that such a program is needed,” said Councillor Neethan Shan (Ward 42 Scarborough-Rouge River), who brought forward the motion to support the program early in October. It was seconded by Councillor Mike Layton.

The idea for this internship began around the 2015 federal election when UARR members spoke to Muslim youth they met through DawaNet about how they perceived democracy, what they understood about civic policy, and how they wanted to contribute towards a greater Toronto, said Mohammed Hashim, a UARR board member.

“What we came to learn from that consultation was there was a fear, like there would be in any kid who wants to get involved. There’s always a little bit of fear . . . and a big reluctance.

“When we dug deeper into it, they said, ‘We don’t know how to get into it or how engage and what my contribution would look like that would matter.’ So we said this is something we could probably address.”

At first, the race relations organization planned to train undergraduate and graduate students and send them in at city hall as volunteers. But the city clerk’s office discouraged that saying it did not want to encourage what would look like an unpaid internship, Hashim said.

Councillor Shan confirmed this process.

“When you come to city council to work it either has to be paid through (the) city — as an employee (paid internship) or it has to be a university/college co-op placement,” he said.

“There’s no way someone can work in the city council office and be paid by someone from outside to do the work.”

So UARR scanned the scene, found inspiration in other fellowships encouraging democratic engagement, such as one by the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee. The city also has had programs with Indigenous youth and young women to work in city councillors’ offices to be mentored. It is also investing in a Black Youth Leadership program.

UARR modelled its fellowship around the Indigenous program. It raised $22,000 from the community and with help from the Atkinson Foundation (the charitable arm of the Toronto Star) and the Laidlaw Foundation. The city is adding $10,000.

“The city told us this is a one-time support in order for the program to get started,” said Hashim.

“The community came together, pooled its resources, had everything ready,” Shan said. “Our bureaucratic process should not be a bottleneck. So we initiated the motion.”

Although the investment is a rounding error in the city budget, and the intention of the program is to encourage Muslim youth to create a better understanding of the city, giving Muslims a chance at politics strikes at the heart of the fear of Islamic hegemony.

This fear damns Muslims seeking Canadian civic engagement as threatening, and damns those who don’t get involved as isolationist.

“I don’t think 13 kids working at city hall on a one-off basis is symbolic of a Muslim takeover,” said Hashim. “It’s really worrisome to me how people feel like the Muslim community is trying to acquire some type of special treatment.”

There is not one Muslim councillor at city hall.

“Our community is going through a lot of trauma right now with the rise of Islamophobia, with the rise of hate crimes against the community,” said Hashim. “This program is going to be serving people to really break down those barriers not just for people within the community but for people outside the community to be able to access the Muslim community.”

These systemic issues means Muslim communities need extra support — the program isn’t about excluding others but rather making sure those targeted for exclusion are given opportunities to belong.

Shan’s words are worth reflecting upon:

“People confuse equality with equity all the time. If we treat everybody equally right now in terms of how we respond to needs, we won’t get the equal outcomes because everybody is not starting at the same level.”

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