Soufi’s, bigotry, and whether Canada is really ‘different’

OPINION: What happened to the Syrian restaurant in Toronto this week tells us a lot about what immigration policy can — and can’t — do
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 11, 2019
Soufi's restaurant in Toronto
Notices of closure taped to the window of Soufi's restaurant, in Toronto, on October 10. The restaurant reopened Friday. (Chris Young/CP)

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Soufi’s, a Syrian restaurant in Toronto, reopened today. In an election that could be most flatteringly called uninspiring, the restaurant’s narrative arc has been compelling, both in its own right and for what it says about Canada in 2019.

Most of the Al-Soufi family arrived in Canada in October 2015, part of the wave of Syrian migrants who came here fleeing the civil war. They started a restaurant in downtown Toronto serving Syrian food. In 2018, the New York Times wrote of their experience, saying that “Canada’s warm welcome to Syrian refugees was a hallmark of Justin Trudeau’s election as prime minister in late 2015, and for many, it remains a potent symbol of Toronto’s multicultural identity.” The politics of immigration, it seemed, were different in Canada.

Alas, not so much: the restaurant closed its doors on Tuesday after the family and staff had been exposed to a torrent of hate, abuse, and threats. Son Alaa Al-Soufi had been recorded obstructing a senior couple trying to enter a People’s Party of Canada fundraiser at Mohawk College, in Hamilton. The video went viral in the fever swamps of the right-wing trollosphere, and the firehose of harassment was turned on.

This example of how Canada is different would have ended up representing exactly the opposite had it not been for the intervention of Mohamad Fakih. The Lebanese-born restaurateur, who started the successful Paramount chain, has dedicated himself to fighting Islamophobia and hate. He successfully pursued a defamation case against Kevin Johnston, a notorious GTA YouTube ranter who’d made entirely unsubstantiated allegations against him. (Johnston had previously tried to stop a mosque from receiving planning approvals in Mississauga.) Fakih offered to take over the running of the restaurant temporarily while the Al-Soufis take a break — and their restaurant reopened Friday.

Canada may not be that different, but Fakih is: a man of considerable means, he has decided to put his energy and money behind helping the immigrant community generally and small businesses specifically In 2017, he established a foundation devoted to “empowering vulnerable and underserved communities for entrepreneurship, leadership, diversity & inclusion.”

Fakih is an incredibly valuable addition to a country where settling new Canadians is a priority — the problem, from a public-policy angle, is that the government can’t mass-produce kind and wealthy businessmen. Government services are crucial, but the government can’t, and arguably shouldn’t, be able to replicate the kind of generosity that Fakih demonstrated this week — and certainly not so fast.

Which leaves us with the perhaps less heartwarming and less headline-grabbing things that government can do. Immigrants, for example, need to have a place to live when they get here. But Ontario has been struggling with an affordable-housing shortage for years. Even in rural areas, a lack of affordable, accessible housing makes all the other elements of settling newcomers harder.

In northern Ontario, the need for new people is most acute: over the next 25 years, the north is going to need more than 150,000 people just to keep its economy at the current level. But actually attracting immigrants to the north — and retaining them once they get there — is harder than it sounds. Local communities can do their best to make themselves attractive to newcomers, but one of the big reasons that newcomers settle in big cities is that that’s where they can find large existing immigrant populations and the amenities to support them. A municipal-nominee program that would see local business and community groups sponsor immigrants might help: at minimum, it seems unlikely to hurt.

What happened with Soufi’s in Toronto ended happily enough, but it also shows the limits of what any welcoming policy can do. There are angry, loud voices in Canada that want fewer newcomers to arrive next year and would probably like some of the people already here to leave. And, even in a city that imagines itself to be uniquely tolerant, those voices threaten to overwhelm all the work and goodwill that go into making a business part of a community.

In short, there are limits to what policies can do, but we can think about politics in a broader sense — about how parties address issues of inclusion and diversity. And an election is as good a time as any to do that.

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