Senator from P.E.I. apologizes for tying international students, Gaza immigrants to terrorism

Percy Downe from Prince Edward Island has walked back comments he made urging security checks on international students and immigrants from Gaza, but an advocacy group is still calling for his resignation.

“Islanders are concerned about terrorists coming to our country, given the terrible, savage crimes committed by Hamas against the citizens of Israel,” Percy Downe said in the preamble to a question directed at Marc Gold, the Trudeau government’s representative in the Senate.

“Given the lack of security checks on international students, what checks will be conducted on individuals coming from Gaza?”

Downe followed up his comments with a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, calling for security checks on immigrants and students from Gaza.

On Saturday, he deleted the post and put up a brief note in its place: “Upon reflection, the tweet I sent out on Gaza was wrong. My apologies for my mistake.”

That was not enough for BIPOC USHR, a P.E.I. group representing people of colour that issued a statement describing Downe’s comments as “blatantly racist and Islamophobic” and calling for his resignation.

A woman with long black hair, wearing a red and white striped shirt, stands in front of paintings showing women of different ethnicities.
Sobia Ali-Faisal, the executive director of P.E.I. advocacy group BIPOC-USHR (which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour United for Strength, Home, Relationship), says the senator’s speech ‘puts a target on the backs of international students, and especially for people… assumed to be Muslim.’ (Jane Robertson/CBC)

“I was really shocked because I didn’t expect it to be so blunt and so openly racist… especially from someone in that kind of position,” Sobia Ali-Faisal, the group’s executive director, said in an interview Monday.  “It’s harmful. It’s dangerous.” 

She said that as a Muslim herself, she found the comments particularly disturbing and unnerving. 

One of the most common racist, Islamophobic tropes is that Muslims are terrorists, or we’re somehow complicit in terrorism, and we’re dangerous and violent.— Sobia Ali-Faisal

“One of the most common racist, Islamophobic tropes is that Muslims are terrorists, or we’re somehow complicit in terrorism, and we’re dangerous and violent.

“It really makes you feel like, ‘OK, this is not someone I would ever, ever go to for anything.'” 

Sexual violence also cited

In another part of Downe’s speech, he spoke of the Canadian Border Services Agency reporting “that criminal gangs are using student visas to import hundreds of gang members” and added: “In P.E.I. there have been cases where international students have sexually assaulted residents.” 

“Sexual violence is unfortunately a common phenomenon all across Canada and in all communities,” said the statement on BIPOC-USHR’s website. 

“To suggest that Black and brown international students are more likely to instigate it relies on an incredibly old racist trope.”

Ali-Faisal said the group is asking for Downe’s resignation because his remarks “puts a target on the backs of international students, and especially for people… assumed to be Muslim.” 

‘Hurtful to historically racialized individuals’

On Monday afternoon, Downe issued a more lengthy statement on the controversy.

“Many international students entering Canada do not undergo security checks,” it said in part. “Obviously, the vast majority of international students are attending schools, but by having security checks in place for all students before they arrive in Canada, we will be better able to protect both citizens and newcomers.

“I wish to emphasize that I believe that this should apply to all international students, and do not want to single out particular groups based on background or country of origin.”

CBC News has reached out to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to ask what security is in place when it comes to international students and immigrants to Canada, but has received no reply. 

Downe’s statement went on to say: “My questions in the Senate on this matter used Gaza as an example and upon reflection, that was a mistake. As some have suggested, it was not my intention to conflate these two separate issues.

“I recognize that my comments could have been hurtful to historically racialized individuals and for that I apologize and acknowledge responsibility.”

Downe also directly addressed accusations that he is anti-Arab and Islamophobic.

He said that for five years, he served as chair of the Canada-United Arab Emirates Parliamentary Friendship Group, and continues to serve as past chair. He added that he was also the founding chair of the Canada-Kuwait Parliamentary Friendship Group.

A post from Senator Percy Downe calling for security checks on international students and immigrants from Gaza.
The senator from Prince Edward Island has now deleted this post from X, which used to be called Twitter. (X)

Downe said those groups have been discussing ways to improve relations between the citizens of those three countries, and he has enjoyed fostering those relationships.

“I don’t know what these groups are,” Ali-Faisal said. “I can only assume that they have something to do with economics or trade or commerce. I assume they’re not about addressing Islamophobia or racism.”