Peel Regional Police have charged a Mississauga, Ont., man, who earlier this year posted a YouTube video offering a $1,000 reward for recordings of Muslim students during prayer, with a hate crime in connection with "numerous incidents reported to police."
Kevin J. Johnston, 45, was arrested Monday and charged with one count of wilful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group under the Criminal Code Section 319 (2). The charge follows "concerns over information published on various social media sites," police said.
The investigation took place over a five-month period, said Sgt. Josh Colley, and wasn't tied to one specific incident but rather "multiple incidents that the investigators were looking at."
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"The group that was targeted was the Muslim community," Colley said, adding the incident "affects us all."
Earlier this year, Johnston, who runs an online publication called Freedom Report, posted a YouTube video offering a $1,000 reward for recordings of Muslim students at Peel Region schools "spewing hate speech during Friday prayers."
The video sparked concern among Muslim families and led the Peel District School Board, which serves Mississauga, and the Peel Region communities of Brampton and Caledon, to issue a memo to its administrators, cautioning them to be "extra vigilant" and reminding them that personal recording devices can only be used in schools for educational purposes, as directed by staff.
"It's not a private message that he was conveying, it was a public message ... Anyone could hear, understand the messaging, so that's where the communicating hateful messages comes into play," Colley told CBC Toronto.
University of Toronto Mississauga student Nour Alideeb says Johnston's video left her horrified.
"I was scared, not for myself in particular, but for my brothers and sisters who are visibly Muslim who are going to these spaces to pray... This is really something that is our right and we shouldn't be afraid."
The question Alideeb has now is why charges weren't laid sooner.
"We claim that we are multicultural and we claim that we protect everybody and we thrive off our diversity, but the actions don't follow up with the words that folks are saying," she said. "Why does it take so long for us to take action on things that we know are wrong?"
Mississauga, Ont., Imam Ibrahim Hindy was one of those who helped to develop the current policy around Friday prayers in Peel schools. He said he hopes the charge against Johnston will deter others from acting in a hateful manner.
"It just takes one person to hear these types of hate-filled rhetoric and turn it into action and end lives," he told CBC News on Monday.
Hindy said recent anti-Muslim incidents in the area have spurred such a sense of anxiety and fear among students and parents in the community that some have considered leaving the school system altogether.
"For sure there are people who have told me they're going to take their kids out of school, they prefer to home school them or put them in a private school, because they felt like this is one step away from violence," he said.
Twitter account suspended
For his part, Johnston denies any criminal wrongdoing.
"There was no real crime committed," he said in an email to CBC Toronto Monday, adding that he will continue to fight against M-103, the non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia and religious discrimination, which passed in the House of Commons in March.
Johnston appeared in court earlier in the day and has since been released on bail. His next court date is set for September.
Just days before being charged, Johnston posted a video saying his Twitter and YouTube accounts had been suspended and that he is now operating under different accounts.
"Yes, you heard correctly. My YouTube channel was taken down," Johnston said in a video posted on the YouTube channel "Freedom Report" on July 18th.
The self-professed free speech advocate goes on to say he has no choice but to block those on Twitter who criticize him so that his new account is not flagged.
"I hate the idea in any way that I have to censor my opponents and my enemies," Johnston said.
"If they can't see what's on my Twitter account, they can't register complaints," he said. "That's the only reason … I'm sorry I have to do it."
Hate crime cases prosecuted 'vigorously'
In order for a hate crime charge to be laid, the province's attorney general must provide consent.
Last year, 19 of 59 reported hate/bias incidents in Peel Region resulted in charges. In 2015, the number of incidents ending in charges was 15 of 63.
In a statement to CBC News, the office of Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said it would be inappropriate to comment on the case against Johnston specifically, but said the government takes allegations of hate crimes very seriously.
"In a multicultural and inclusive province like Ontario, the promotion of hatred stands in direct opposition to our fundamental values of equality and diversity," Naqvi said in a statement.
"Hate crimes are, by their very nature, serious offences, because their impacts can be devastating, spreading from the individual, through the social fabric of our communities and society as a whole," the statement said. "Ontario prosecutes these cases vigorously, where there is reasonable prospect of conviction."
Hindy agrees on the risks to society.
"Hatred does exist, it's alive and well in Canada and we have to be vigilant in terms of stopping it, because it can get out of hand."