When Sara McCleary first saw the swastika on her front lawn, she thought it was a bad joke.
The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. resident had just buckled her daughter into the family car when she spotted it. Someone had drawn the symbol in the snow, along with a gibberish word. She took a photo to show her husband, and then quickly wiped it away.
Although McCleary doesn’t practice Judaism, she comes from a Jewish family and writes for the Jewish organization B’Nai Brith. Literally and figuratively, it was too close to home to be a coincidence.
“Someone would have had to have gone through a lot of work to find out where I live; if they're that strongly anti-Semitic, who's to say they won't go further?” she asks.
That fear is sadly familiar for many Canadians. Although the latest annual report by Statistics Canada shows a decrease in hate crimes, hate-motivated intimidation and assaults are alarming marginalized communities across the country. Rarely are offenders brought to justice: conviction rates are low, especially for vandalism.
To combat these offences, as well as emerging hateful attitudes, advocacy groups and concerned citizens are taking it upon themselves to serve and protect their own.
Sara McCleary found a swastika in the snow on her front lawn. (Photo courtesy Sara McCleary)
What is a hate crime?
Any criminal act motivated by hate against an identifiable group can be considered a hate crime.
Section 318 defines an identifiable group as one distinguished by their “colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.”
But when it comes to applying the definition in reality, the Department of Justice notes that defining a hate crime is can be inconsistent between law enforcement agencies.
What’s more, some communities commonly targeted in hateful acts may not be getting due attention. After someone in a passing car threw a trailer hitch at an Indigenous woman in Thunder Bay, Ont.. Aboriginal Legal Services executive director Jonathan Rudin told CBC News that Thunder Bay locals regularly throw things at Indigenous passersby.
Canada’s Criminal Code states that hate crime offences are expressed in four ways: promoting genocide, public statements and gestures inciting hate, deliberately promoting hatred of a group, or vandalizing religious property with hateful mischief.
With an updated report expected this summer, Statistics Canada’s 2013 hate crime report indicates there were 1,167 police-reported incidents that year, a 17 per cent drop from 2012.
Some police departments have hate crime units, such as those in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. In response to the slower federal report’s release cycle, some boards release annual hate crime reports, like Toronto Police Services (TPS), and Hamilton.
However, the data is incomplete. Statistics Canada only tracks incidents reported to police, which it estimates is only one-third of overall hate crimes.
Anti-black racism In Ottawa
When a community feels unsafe around police, how can they report a hate crime?
Muslim Link editor-in-chief Chelby Daigle points this out. She’s the author of a report on anti-black racism in Ottawa. Her report compiles what was learned during a public forum held following the fatal shooting of Somali-Canadian Abridirahman Abdi by Ottawa police. Planned before Abdi’s death, the forum drew massive crowds for a public discussion of discrimination and barriers faced by black locals.
Statistics Canada reports that half of all hate crimes are racially motivated. Of those crimes, black individuals were the most targeted. Most victims of violent hate crime were young black men.
Daigle notes that this data is likely severely underreported, and that blackness isn’t part of the national hate crime narrative. Within diverse black communities, she says that for those with multiple identities, such as being black and Muslim or black and LGBTQ, they become doubly unsafe.
“Whether you’re going to feel comfortable reporting to police, that matters,” she says. “There needs to be much more conversations between communities on everyone’s realities, and that’s not really happening right now.”
Daigle notes that Ottawa has seen an influx of diverse black communities over the past 25 years, all of which have different value systems, faiths, political affiliations, and identities.
On combatting anti-blackness and encouraging inter-community unity, she emphasizes the importance of being approachable and communicating in a hopeful way. Whether it’s through educational community media that can reach even busy single moms, or catering to language needs for Ottawa’s large black Francophone population, Daigle is hopeful that her report will lead to conversations around building sustainable ways for black locals to take leadership and mobilize against racism.
Amira Elghawaby, who serves as the communications director of the National Council of Canadian Muslisms, says a lot of their work involves countering false negatives. (Photo courtesy Amira Elghawaby / NCCM)
In 2011, Amira Elghawaby says the joke at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) was that they needed to hire 10 full-time staff. Six years later, NCCM’s four full-time staff are kept plenty busy by everything they do.
Which is a lot. The non-profit often weighs in on federal legislature affecting Muslims, like Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s anti-Islamophobia motion. The group is a vocal media spokesperson on behalf of Muslim communities, and has conducted hundreds of anti-Islamophobic training workshops from coast to coast, through the help of volunteers and part-timers.
NCCM began tracking national hate crimes against Muslims on an online map in 2015. Hate crimes against Muslims are the fastest growing in Canada, according to the Statistics Canada 2013 report. In its 2015 hate crime report, Toronto Police Services (TPS) discovered there was a spike in hate crimes against Muslims in the month following the Paris attacks.
Elghawaby, who serves as NCCM’s communications director, says a lot of their work involves countering false narratives, especially considering the turbulent political climate in the States under U.S. President Trump and the ensuing chaos of the Muslim travel ban.
The Quebec mosque shooting that left six Muslims dead in January 2017 may have been the wake-up call for those who were unaware that Islamophobia happens in Canada too.
“We hit a climax point where I think fellow Canadians have finally understood. This is a real thing that’s been affecting Muslims for years,” she says. “No one expected it to get to this point with the tragic killing, and hopefully it'll never happen again, but now it’s very much on people’s radar that this is an issue.”
NCCM hopes to empower Muslims across Canada in correcting misinformation, such as what Sharia law actually is. Elghawaby highlights a promising voicemail she recently received, where a man asks for NCCM’s help in just that.
“He was like, ‘I’m hearing all this stuff and I don’t understand, I want you to tell me what it is. I want to get the truth here,’” she says. “It’s exactly what you hope people do. When they're not sure what's being said, go to the source.”
LGBTQ inclusion 101
Statistics Canada found that two-thirds of hate incidents motivated by sexual orientation were violent from 2010 to 2013. Most of the victims were young men, assaulted by other young men who were unknown to them.
With youth as frequent victims and offenders, national LGBTQ advocacy organization Egale Canada is often in schools as an educational resource. Its very presence there indicates a lot of political sway. With involvement in every Supreme Court gay rights case and as one of the leading proponents in the fight for same-sex marriage, the group is Canada’s most recognizable LGBTQ lobby group.
Executive director Helen Kennedy knows the role bears a historic weight.
“[With] the type of work we do, we're always having difficult conversations with people who have not always wanted us at the table,” she says. “Whether it be government, religious institutions, [or] corporations, we've always been in situations where it hasn’t always been easy.”
Supporting queer and trans youth can go from the classroom to the shelter. Up to 40 per cent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, Homeless Hub reports. This risk, along with possible hate-motivated incidents facing youth in general shelters, is at the heart of Egale’s upcoming transitional and emergency housing facility.
When they’re in school, Kennedy notes that transgender youth face particularly harsh barriers. Egale Canada’s research shows that 37 per cent of trans students have been assaulted or harassed because of their gender, and one in five trans Ontarians are physically or sexually assaulted. Many can’t even go to the washroom.
“We know of young kids who become ill in schools because they're not allowed to use, or the parent shows up at recess to take them to the gas station to use the bathroom,” she says.
Unfortunately, government data on hate incidents experienced by trans Canadians is non-existent.
Hate crimes against transgender Canadians are not included in Statistics Canada’s 2013 report, although police are receiving reports. In its annual report, TPS has noted trans hate crime complainants under the “sex” category since 2014. Gender identity and expression are not included in the Criminal Code’s definition of an identifiable group either.
Top hate crimes are still against Jewish Canadians
Anti-Semitic hate crimes remain the highest religious-motivated crimes reported to police. Most are reports of graffiti.
In response to concern for religious hate graffiti, the federal government relaxed restrictions for its hate crime prevention fund in 2016. Public Safety announced the renewed fund will award up to $100,000 for groups that need help removing hateful graffiti or upgrading security.
But until it happened to McCleary, she never fully grasped how blatant hate would feel.
McCleary decided to be vocal about her swastika experience, writing a column that garnered widespread support from community members, coworkers, and media.
“I wanted them to know that they weren't going to stop me, that I wasn't going to be silenced.”
“I wanted them to know that they weren't going to stop me, that I wasn't going to be silenced,” she says. “I also wanted to make sure that anyone who hadn't undergone a similar situation could understand what it does to you, how it makes you feel.”
Since the incident, McCleary has been sleeping with a golf club. She’s more relaxed than she had been in the ensuing fear, but doubts she’ll ever get back to feeling comfortable again. She hasn’t ruled out moving to a new neighbourhood, but support from allies has given her hope.
A few days after the first swastika, she found two more drawn in the snow in front of the church beside her home. The words “HEIL” and “WHITE POWER” were written in the snow, too.
But the vandals had been vandalized. Someone else had half-wiped the words, crossed out one of the swatstikas, wrote a “no” under the “HEIL,” as well as: “Peace in society.”
“That someone was fighting back like that was incredibly encouraging and just fantastic to me,” McCleary says.
How to react to a hate crime
French artist Maeril went viral after producing a guide explaining how to confront Islamophobia in a safe way. It tells bystanders to engage with the victim in polite conversation unrelated to the perpetuator. Doing so re-directs the victim’s attention, and deprives the aggressor of an audience.
Edmonton mayor, Don Iveson, kickstarted #MakeItAwkward, a campaign that encourages Edmonton residents to speak up whenever they see racist harassment.
If a confrontation escalates and the victim consent, many advocacy groups like NCCM recommend reporting to police.