About a hundred pairs of shoes sat around an Indigenous medicine wheel banner laid out at Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square, as nearly 400 people gathered to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Thursday, March 21.
Some of the shoes -- including a child's pair of pink sandals and battered Birkenstocks -- were brought by migrant workers and refugees in Canada to "represent anti-racist and migrant struggles," said organizers of the rally. The banner symbolized the fight for Indigenous self-determination.
Not far from the circle of shoes was a black board with photos -- a makeshift memorial to the victims of last week's shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
As the sweet smell of incense wafted in the early evening breeze, people were invited to sign a pledge "to always confront anti-Muslim hatred, racism and xenophobia at home, in public, at my workplace and in laws and policies."
The rally, organized by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and the Migrant Rights Network, was part of a co-ordinated action in over a dozen cities across Canada, including Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax.
The Migrant Rights Network -- a new cross-Canada alliance of 36 grassroots migrant and refugee groups, labour unions and civil society organizations -- said it would hold more rallies in the coming months to combat racism and fight for migrant justice.
Speakers at the two-hour rally focused on issues ranging from the plight of migrant workers, to Indigenous self-determination, to the upcoming federal elections in Canada.
"No one is illegal on stolen land," said Terri Monture, a Mohawk author and Indigenous rights activist.
Syed Hussan from the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change warned that Canadians are facing "a dangerous political environment" characterized by "an increased divisiveness."
Decades of job loss, wage stagnation and service cuts have left many Canadians worried about the future, and "politicians are responding to this fear, not by raising wages or expanding public services, but by demonizing migrants and refugees," he said.
Canada faces a real danger of electing right-wing populists in the coming federal elections, said Hussan, as he urged Canadians not to fall for politicians who say that migrants are stealing their jobs or that refugees are taking up shelter spaces.
"Our shelters have been in crisis for decades. How is it that we're being pitted against each other?" he said. "At the end of the day, we all want the same things. We want decent work, we want to provide for our families and live with dignity."
Azeezah Kanji, a legal scholar, activist and writer, took aim at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, questioning how a recent CTV poll could find him the second most ethical party leader. Scheer has been widely criticized for issuing a statement about the New Zealand shooting without mentioning that the victims were Muslims, and for sharing a stage with white nationalist and former Rebel Media personality Faith Goldy during a pro-pipeline rally in Ottawa on February 21.
Kanji urged Canadians to become more aware of how white supremacy "permeates our daily life." She said that white supremacy is present when migrants from the global south "are good enough to work, but not good enough to stay and become permanent residents," and when Black Canadians and Indigenous people are over-represented in prisons and face police harassment.
Over 700,000 people arrive annually on temporary work permits and yet their contributions to Canadian society are not recognized, said Kara Manso from the Caregivers Action Centre.
She said that among them are care workers who are "racialized women who are treated like disposable machines and are hidden in homes."
Seeing the circle of shoes reminded Manso of when she first arrived in Canada to work as a caregiver. "I had one pair of winter shoes that I bought for $60. They weren't warm and I wore them even when later they had holes, and water seeped through them as I took the children to the park," she said.
Rally goers, who set up information booths on the square, also called on the government to grant migrant workers landed status on arrival, decent wages and access to basic services. They said under current immigration policies, migrant workers have no access to healthcare since they are on temporary permits.
"This denial happens despite migrants and refugees paying for public services through municipal, sales and income taxes," said a statement from the Migrant Rights Network.
The rally, which had been peaceful, was briefly interrupted when Goldy and a small group of far-right supporters showed up. Police moved in to break up a shoving and shouting match that ensued between the rally attendees and Goldy’s group. The rally continued after Goldy and her supporters were escorted out by the police.
Marites N. Sison is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.
Photo: Marites N. Sison
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