Muslim Deaths Fuel Debate in Canada on Hate Crime Laws

TORONTO — The day after a young man slammed his pickup truck into five members of a Muslim family while they were out for a stroll in London, Ontario, police announced the victims had been targeted because of their faith.

As news spread across the country about the deaths of the four relatives — the fifth victim was in a hospital with serious injuries — Detective Superintendent Paul Waight said evidence indicated the attack against the Afzaal family was a “planned, premeditated act motivated by hate.”

Later on June 7, a local imam exhorted Canadians to take action. “We don’t want people to be alienated and live in fear,” Munir El-Kessem said on national television. “We’ve got to deal with hatred on the educational front, on the political front, on the social front. We’ve got to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Authorities announced on Monday that the suspect will face terrorism charges in addition to first-degree murder charges. That attack is now reviving conversations about hate crime in Canada, and is renewing calls to combat it more effectively through political, legal and educational channels.

[MORE: Canada Confronts Growing Tensions Between Its Ethnic Communities]

Hate Crime Not in Criminal Code

Legal experts note that Canada’s criminal code doesn’t explicitly define hate crime. Instead, there are a few sections that touch on hate. Those sections make it illegal to promote genocide or publicly incite hatred where it would likely lead to violence. The criminal code also prohibits willful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group through statements made outside private conversations. The country’s code also prohibits what it defines as “mischief,” including damage to religious property if it is “motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on color, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression or mental or physical disability.”

Although a person cannot specifically be charged with a hate crime, hate can factor into sentencing. For example, a person who paints a swastika on a synagogue could be charged with simple mischief and, if the court views the offense as one that was motivated by hate, it might impose a harsher sentence than it would otherwise. That person could be charged separately with mischief to religious property.

Most crimes involving race are prosecuted as regular offenses under the criminal code with bias, prejudice or hate considered aggravating factors in sentencing.

A first-degree murder conviction for an adult carries a mandatory life sentence with a parole ineligibility period of 25 years. If the court determines such an act was motivated by hate, it might require the perpetrator to wait longer to be eligible for parole. Multiple murder convictions have allowed Canadian courts to order consecutive parole ineligibility periods for each conviction. But in November of last year the Quebec Court of Appeal, in reviewing the case of a man convicted of murdering six people at a Quebec City mosque, ruled that such sentencing stacking constituted cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling applies only to the province of Quebec.

[MORE: Why Canada’s Indigenous Have Vaccine Worries]

Police Resist Classifying Crimes as Hate-Motivated

Activists say Canada’s ability to combat hate crime was weakened in 2013, when the federal government repealed a section of an act that allowed the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) to handle complaints about “the communication of hate messages by telephone or on the internet.” The provision enabled the Canada Human Rights Tribunal to order individuals to remove posts or websites deemed hateful.

Toronto-based lawyer Mark Freiman, former deputy attorney general of Ontario, says that section of the act was an effective tool in combating hate crime because the standard of proof is lower in regulatory matters than in criminal ones. He cites the case of Ernst Zundel, a German Holocaust denier who promoted hatred against Jews on his website and who lived in Canada from 1958 to 2000. After the CHRC launched an investigation, Zundel fled the country, eventually returning to Germany, where he died in 2017.

Law enforcement bodies could do more to combat hate, activists say. “We have robust laws addressing hate but police generally resist classifying crimes as hate-motivated,” says Bernie Farber, head of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. When police don’t classify a crime as hate-motivated, prosecutors and judges are less likely to treat it as one, he says.

Farber notes that Toronto police have to yet to announce whether the murder of a Muslim man in front of mosque last year will be classified as hate-motivated — even though the alleged attacker’s social media activity suggests he belonged to a Nazi death cult.

Activists Say Propaganda Promoting Hate Must be Tackled

With hate crime on the rise in Canada, activists say authorities need to be more rigorous in applying existing laws related to hate crimes — and they also need to bolster those laws.

“We’ve been calling for years to strengthen online anti-hate laws,” says Farber. “If we get hate off social media, we’ll keep it off our streets. We don’t know the circumstances that led to the attack in London, but we know that addressing online hate will make such attacks less likely.”

Adds Freiman: “The real problem isn’t at the point where hate crystallizes as violence, but rather at an earlier stage, where propaganda promotes violence.”

For months now, the federal government has been promising to introduce a bill to combat harmful content and online hate speech. The legislation is expected to cover five categories: hate speech, terrorist content, content that incites violence, child sexual exploitative content and non-consensual sharing of intimate content. The legislation is also expected to include a new statutory definition of hate that relies on case law, including the Supreme Court affirmation of the “11 hallmarks of hate” as defined in a 2006 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision.

Political pundits also say they believe the new legislation includes the creation of a regulator that will be responsible for enforcing the new law by, for example, ordering online platforms to remove illegal content. “It’s important that entities that are able to remove offensive material should be partly responsible for doing so,” says Freiman, referring to internet service providers.

There is also speculation the government will introduce measures that are similar to the section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that was repealed in 2013. “The government has already written new legislation. It just needs to be passed,” Farber says, adding that educators must do more to combat hate. “Teachers need to identify the problem quickly, so we are now providing workshops to help them learn how to do that.”

The recent attack in London might prompt the government to introduce the new bill sooner rather than later. As 9-year old Fayez Afzaal recovers in hospital following the deaths of his parents, teenage sister and grandmother, political leaders are speaking out against hate crime.

“This week, they have been reciting the same platitudes they always do when such tragedies occur. In the past, nothing more than that has been done [to combat hate crime],” says Farber. “But Canadians are really shocked and mortified by what happened in London. Perhaps this is a watershed moment in our history.”

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