Scrubbing Away Hate

Cold Lake uses love, scrub brushes, and coffee to banish vandalism at a local mosque

Flower Power
A young woman offers a flower as a symbol of peace to a Military Police Officer at the October 21st march at the Pentagon. (Image Source: National Archives)

It wasn’t a daisy thrust into the barrel of a gun, it was a scrub brush, and a hug, and a community-sized box of coffee—because there’s almost nothing a shareable jolt of Tim Horton’s joe can’t fix.

For sure, the events in a small northern Canadian town on Friday, October 24 were different than those of the 1967 march to the Pentagon, when hippies and love children fought the war in Viet Nam by offering daisies and carnations to heavily armed soldiers. What became known as “Flower Power,” the movement that used love as an antidote to violence, was revived on the main street of Cold Lake, Alberta.

Cold Lake is a small town masquerading as a city in northeast Alberta. It’s known for two things: Canada’s biggest air force base and oil fields. It’s a wild west town. The population is young, tough and brash. There’s a lot of money to be had. There’s a lot of fundamentalist religion. And pretty near everybody drives a pick-up truck. It might not be fair to say everybody’s a redneck in Cold Lake but there are more than a few and they wear their neck colour like a badge of honour.

On the surface, Cold Lake tries to be cosmopolitan. After all, people come from all over Canada and the world to work here. The local retail stores hire people from the Philippines to meet demand. The air force employs people of all nationalities and sexual preferences, so it’s modern era warfare in which your lieutenant is just as likely to be a lesbian in a crewcut as some guy named Hank. There are also a number of Native Peoples reservations. The Cold Lake Walmart has become a cornucopia of aboriginal families, soldiers, mud-splattered oil field riggers and other folks trying to grab a piece of the gold mine and fit in.

Amidst the cacophony of so many different people are the Muslims. They’re just working stiffs like everybody else, trying to pay the bills and raise their families. They work at the base, they dispense eyeglasses, they cut hair at the barber shop. They’ve been here for a long time, way before oil was a “thing.” In short, they belong as much as anybody else belongs.

Everything in Cold Lake was pretty copacetic until October 24.

Tensions rose when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) made threats to attack Canada. “You will not feel secure in your bedrooms,” warned terrorist leaders in September.

On October 20, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and another soldier were walking through a Quebec parking lot when they were run over by a radicalized Islamic extremist, a Montrealer who was on Canada’s “watch list” and had recently had his passport revoked. Officer Vincent died. His killer was shot and killed by police after a brief car chase.

On October 21, Canada sent six fighter jets and support crews from Cold Lake to Kuwait for air combat against Iraq.

On October 22, all eyes were on Ottawa when another radicalized Islamic extremist killed an unarmed Canadian army reservist who served as an honour guard at Canada’s most revered war memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Despite heroic efforts from bystanders, Corporal Nathan Cirillo was pronounced dead at hospital.) After shooting Cirillo, the killer hijacked a car and rushed to the nearby Parliament Buildings, gun waving, and managed to get inside. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking and James Bond skills of Sgt. At Arms Kevin Vickers, the body count might have been much higher. Inside the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings were Canada’s top decision-makers, including the Prime Minister, leaders of the opposition and members of Parliament. Vickers, a 58-year-old former police officer, emptied his pistol into the killer and saved the day.

In the aftermath, Canada’s leaders implored citizens not to take out their anger and their fear against Muslims. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said, “To our friends and fellow citizens in the Muslim community, Canadians know acts such as these committed in the name of Islam are an aberration of your faith. Continued mutual cooperation and respect will help prevent the influence of distorted ideological propaganda posing as religion. We will walk forward together, not apart.”

Not everyone heeded this advice.

vandalized mosque
Vandalized mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta.

On Fri., Oct. 24, Mahmoud El-Kadri went to the Cold Lake Mosque, where he is a director, for early morning prayer. He was shocked to see a window broken and the words “go home” spray painted across the front of the building. While news of this hate crime spread quickly around the world, the people of Cold Lake got busy trying to right the wrong.

Without being asked, without any kind of organization, residents simply showed up at the mosque. They were First Nations men and women, soldiers, oil workers and stay- at-home moms. There were rednecks and there were philosophers. Retirees and kids. They brought scrub brushes and elbow grease, ladders, and buckets full of soapy water. They brought messages, cards and flowers. They covered the windows with posters proclaiming “Love Thy Neighbour” and “You Are Home.” People were laughing and crying, and there was lots of hugging going on. Someone bought coffee. There were probably doughnuts. It looked like there was a street party going on and it wasn’t long before the hateful words were gone.

El-Kadri told Global News, “When I came this morning and I felt the support of Cold Lake, I really forgot what happened. I forgot the windows, I forget about the writing… It made me feel like I am one of the Cold Lake people.”

When yet another member of the community arrived at the mosque and asked, “What can I do to help?” a member of the mosque grinned, the biggest kind of ear-to-ear grin imaginable, and said, “You’re doing it. Just having people here, showing support, that is the best help of all.”

    Flower Power, Cold Lake Style
Flower Power, Cold Lake Style

The tensions of the week may have driven a few to express anger at local Muslim families, but those were in the minority and the perpetrator/s of the Cold Lake vandalism were decried far and wide as criminals. They haven’t been caught, yet, but is no doubt they eventually will be and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

They say Canada’s innocence has been lost by recent events, and yes, this country faces many challenges, like so many other countries do in this changing world. But the people of Cold Lake have proven, with their compassion and their scrub brushes, that it isn’t hate that still rules this world: it’s love.

And if that makes them flower children, so be it.

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