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When Peterborough speaks

By David Wilson

The small central Ontario city of Peterborough is often a go-to place for marketers when they want to test drive a new brand. With demographics that make it quintessentially Canadian, Peterborough has been a proving ground for products as diverse as instant mashed potatoes, stubby beer bottles and striped toothpaste. When Peterborough speaks, marketers listen.

In the wake of November’s ISIS attacks in Paris, Peterborough spoke again. I hope the whole country was listening.

About 24 hours after the carnage in France, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into the Masjid Al-Salaam mosque in Peterborough’s west end, setting the city’s only Muslim place of worship ablaze.

The mosque was empty. But the blaze caused about $80,000 in damage to the interior of the brick building, rendering it unusable. Police quickly labelled the incident a hate crime; at press time, they hadn’t made any arrests.

The fire made headlines in Canada and beyond; it was part of a wave of anti-Muslim violence following the brutal attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured over 300 more. In Toronto, a Muslim woman was attacked as she picked up her daughter from school. Another woman was verbally assaulted as she rode a subway train. In Dauphin, Man., someone telephoned a volunteer at First United and said he hoped “the church would burn in hell” for sponsoring Syrian refugees. Other anti-Muslim incidents were reported in Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary.

In Peterborough, the flames at the Masjid Al-Salaam mosque were barely extinguished when Mark Street United offered space to host the Muslim community’s Friday prayer. The morning after the blaze, members of an Anglican congregation took up a special collection. The president of Beth Israel Synagogue met with the president of the local Muslim association and agreed to share the synagogue until the mosque was repaired. Bouquets of flowers and messages of support appeared at the mosque’s back door. An anonymous donor offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arsonist’s arrest. The Peterborough Examiner ran an editorial cartoon of a middle-aged reader weeping over the news of the arson.

Perhaps the most remarkable show of solidarity was an online fundraising campaign intended to generate enough donations to repair the damaged building. In 30 hours, it raised more than $110,000. The Muslim association will use the extra funds for local charity work.

Scant weeks before the fire, in an election partly fought on the issue of the niqab, Peterborough voters elected a young Muslim woman who came to Canada as a refugee from Afghanistan. She was the strongest of the three main candidates locally, but her win over the Conservatives, who had held the riding since 2006, also signalled that these quintessential Canadians were finished with the politics of division. Peterborough’s response to the mosque fire reaffirmed the message: ignorance and hate are not welcome here. Our better instincts will prevail.

I lived in Peterborough for four years in the 1970s and still have ties to the area through family and friends. I hardly qualify as a Peterbourian, but in light of the extraordinary response to the fire at the Masjid Al-Salaam mosque, I would be proud to call myself one. The city wasn’t looking for celebrity. It just did what it knew was right. I want to believe that, put in the same position, most other Canadian cities would do the same. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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