A version of this article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen June 14, 2002 

Since Sept. 11, it is clear that we are in the midst of a profound confrontation of values on a global scale. The Internet and mass media are now the preferred vehicles for the spread of propaganda of all kinds. All of it comes directly into our homes. In fact, there is a convergence of resentments and technology at the present time, which makes the resurgence of racism and hatred even more dangerous.

Until events over the last year, domestic racist groups were seen as the main source of hatred and danger. Since the attack against the United States, we understand there are other potential sources of conflict which feed into the racist agenda. Hindu temples, synagogues and mosques have all been vandalized or firebombed since Sept. 11. Many of our minorities, unnoticed before that date, now feel uniquely visible, especially if they wear any distinguishable attire.

Racists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen or anti-immigrant parties have been the main political beneficiaries of this type of conflict. Recent anti-Jewish graffiti in Ottawa were soon supplemented by anti- Somali slogans in one case and anti-black slogans in another. Racism rarely stays focused on one target. Because of this tendency to spread to other groups, it threatens our way of life and our prosperity.

Our existing hate laws and human-rights codes form useful frameworks for reacting to racist acts openly committed by domestic racists and bigots. But they are inadequate to address the kind of intergroup anger and resentment fed by overseas events, which we have now experienced.

We need to combat not only the openly avowed racists, but our very human tendency to blame whole peoples and groups for the many intergroup conflicts we are now more aware of, whether they originate in Canada or abroad.

In a world where rumours spread like wildfire over the Net and each of us can potentially reach more people than any Canadian news chain, each of us has to learn to exercise a new civic responsibility. To prevent racism and hatred from taking hold in this environment of constant “information,” each one of us needs to learn how to recognize bias, prejudice and hatred — even our own and that of our acquaintances. We must learn to take action in our daily lives to prevent the development or strengthening of anyone’s agenda for racism or hatred. A word to a friend or acquaintance, guidance to one’s children or even self-restraint are all equally important.

To ensure the greatest possible spread of this knowledge, we can make greater use of the existing community structures and institutions to address hatred and inter-ethnic understanding at a grassroots level. Community centres, schools, the police, transportation services, workplaces and unions can all train their staff to recognize and deal with hatred. Places of worship and other community organizations can co-sponsor educational programs to address the same issues.

We need to realize that there is a need for prevention, not just cleaning the structures that were defaced by graffiti and punishing those who drew it. Similar programs are appropriate in any workplace or any institution, where people of diverse origins need to work together for the good of the organization. In other cases, there may already have been incidents that need to be addressed and not swept under the rug.

Relationships between people need to be built up over time and are difficult to create in times of crisis. In Ottawa, cooperation between Jewish Family Services and the Somali Centre for Family Services has been an outstanding case of joint work for some time, and was instrumental in bringing together a Jewish man and a Somali youth after a recent incident. More such intergroup work is essential.

It should be a basic part of our curriculum that students recognize hate propaganda and misinformation and that they learn to separate out legitimate feelings such as anger, fear and resentment from acts of hatred. This is especially true in courses on history or world issues. In addition to using the criminal justice system when racist or hate incidents occur, community groups can work with police to ensure that perpetrators understand the nature and consequences of their actions. The Ottawa Community Police Service and its hate crimes unit have on a number of occasions worked to help youth in such circumstances by using alternative community mechanisms to work through the issue.

This is an enormous challenge that we cannot turn away from. Nor can we rely on our leaders to do it for us or on the kind of worthy statement issued on Parliament Hill on Tuesday by Rabbi Arnold Fine, Imam Gamal Solaiman and Rev. James Stevenson. In a world where each of us is a potential target for hate, each must act and we must each have the tools to do so.

The B’nai Brith League for Human Rights’ Taking Action Against Hate workshop is one instrument developed for this purpose. We need to draw on these and other resources across Canada to equip ourselves for this struggle. Hatred poses the same dangers to our diverse society that terrorism poses to our physical structures. Dealing with it should become a national priority.

Rubin Friedman is an Ottawa-based consultant to B’nai Brith’s Taking Action Against Hate.