A packed crowd gathered at U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) to celebrate their inner feminist on International Women's Day on Saturday, March 11.
But instead of of uplifting talk of grrl power, the focus was on a racially tinged incident involving a Muslim student on campus. The woman says a female handing out flyers at Hart House for the Toronto Supports Denmark rally, which was taking place the same day in front of the Danish Consulate down the street, hurled racial slurs at her.
Nav Purewal and Daniel Dale , organizers of the event dubbed "a rally for democracy and freedom of expression," told me outside the Danish Consulate that they don't condone violence of any kind. The whole point of their rally, they said, was to condemn the uproar and flag-burning that occurred in Muslim countries during the recent Mohammed cartoon controversy.
"We don't condone [the leafleter's actions] at all," said Dale. "We're going to have Muslims here as friends, and it's an insult."
Broadcast journalist turned Conservative candidate Peter Kent spoke at the rally as a representative of the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, a non-profit that got into some hot water during the federal election for erroneously making a Muslim Liberal candidate out to be an extremist. The group's website says it's dedicated to supporting "sister democracies who share our values."
"Any democracy worth its salt should be strong enough to endure the most controversial speech," Kent told the assembled. "That speech cannot be corrupted or compromised or silenced by intimidation or fear of violent reprisal."
Toronto Coalition to Stop the War member James Clark , on the other hand, wonders if those behind the Toronto Supports Denmark rally aren't trying "to use the cover of freedom of speech to spread intolerance, [which] undermines the freedom of speech of everyone."
Shaila Kibria , VP for equity on U of T's Students' Administrative Council, says the university is not doing enough in response to what she calls growing Islamophobia on campus.
"When the university makes a statement that freedom of expression should not be curbed yet human rights must be respected, what does that mean?" asks Kibria.
U of T deputy provost David Farrar counters that "we work very hard with our student groups to encourage understanding of other cultures and engage in respectful discourse, but ultimately we can't regulate that kind of discourse."
Kibria held a rally the day after the Hart House incident with about 25 other Muslim students proudly wearing hijabs. She says passersby threw eggs at them.