Edmonton police have charged a local blogger with a hate crime for allegedly targeting some local well-known LGBTQ advocates in a series of online posts, CBC News has learned.
Court records show police have charged Barry Winters, 62, with wilful promotion of hatred in ongoing posts for his blog The Baconfat Papers over a two-year period ending Dec. 31, 2016.
The charge is the result of a lengthy investigation after Kris Wells, professor and director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, and at least one other LGBTQ advocate, complained more than a year ago.
As an advocate for human rights, Wells said he is regularly harassed by phone and online.
"But this particular kind of message really did cross the line and targeted me personally," he said in an interview. "It made me concerned for my own safety."
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Over the past year there have been several high-profile investigations by the Edmonton Police Service's hate crimes detail but the threshold is high to lay a hate-related charge.
But Marni Panas, another well-known activist, said when she first stumbled upon the blog in May 2016 she feared for her personal safety and decided to report it.
"I was quite concerned because this person was from Edmonton, and if you read it you will see this person has a clear level of hate towards gay people, transgender," said Panas.
Panas said she worries her complaint will make her more of a target "but yet if we remain silent, words have a way of turning into action. And so when we see it we must point it out and talk about it and report it."
Panas said she was emotional when police called her two weeks ago to inform her of the charge.
"They took it incredibly seriously and clearly they took the due diligence that they needed to find grounds to charge this man," said Panas. "It just reinforces how important our police service is, and how actively engaged they are in trying to stop hate. And a reminder to the rest of community, all communities, that when you see something you report it."
The Alberta Hate Crimes Committee advocacy group Tuesday put out a news release expressing concern about the most recent data from Statistics Canada showing that, overall in Alberta, hate incidents were up by 39 per cent in 2015, climbing from 139 to 193, compared to a five per cent rise nationally.
The Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, which tracks Islamophobic-related incidents, says members are seeing an upsurge.
'When we see it we must point it out and talk about it and report it' - Marni Panas, advocate
"It seems in the age of Trump that some people feel more and more emboldened to spew this hateful rhetoric and they're going to be held accountable," said Wells, singling out those "hiding behind keyboards" to send hateful messages.
"I think that's the key message that comes out of this case with the Edmonton Police Service — that you cannot hide if you're going to promote hate," said Wells.
EPS declined comment on the charge. But a police spokesperson said the issue will be discussed Wednesday at a news conference planned to talk about hate crimes.
Wells said he doesn't favour stifling free and fair speech and respects differences of opinion expressed through constructive conversations. "But no one should have to experience this level of victimization and trauma," he added.
Hate incidents don't just target the individual but also send a message that tells the wider community they don't belong and "they're not safe here," he said.
Lewd, homophobic flyers target Eggen, Wells
In another case involving Wells, Education Minister David Eggen's department has made a complaint to police after the distribution in his Edmonton riding of lewd, defamatory, and homophobic flyers.
The flyers, which CBC isn't printing due to their highly offensive nature, falsely claim Eggen and Wells sought to educate school children about sexual acts, including one described in crude detail.
"These images are highly inappropriate for children and I can't begin to imagine why someone would deem it reasonable to distribute them publicly," wrote Eggen in a statement. "My understanding is this matter has been turned over to the police."
The pamphlet also notes that a government-funded website, overseen by Wells' organization and meant to support students who belong to gay-straight alliances, was forced to remove some online links in March after complaints from Edmonton blogger Theresa Ng.
CBC requested comment through the email address provided at the bottom of the pamphlet but received no response.
Meanwhile, several incidents that occurred during last weekend's Pride celebrations in Edmonton have also been reported to police, including a rainbow flag cut down at an Edmonton high school. Police confirmed alleged harassment of some revellers caught on video are being looked at by hate crime investigators.
But Wells said "the love and energy" at the Pride festival "far outweighs the small-minded actions of hate and homophobia" in the community.
"We we will not be afraid, we will not hide away," said Wells. "In many cases these hateful responses only embolden us where we can turn this hurt to help ... and a force for building inclusive communities all across our province and country."
Wilfully promoting hatred carries a maximum penalty of up to two years in prison. Winters appeared in court June 9 but no further court appearances have been scheduled.