Edmonton

Far-right extremists getting bolder as threatening behaviour goes unchecked, police warned

More than two weeks after the videos were posted to social media, the National Council of Canadian Muslims is among those questioning why charges have not been laid in this case or in previous incidents.

'Ramadan bombathon' video recorded at Edmonton mosque last month being investigated

Al Rashid Mosque has been the target of two high-profile incidents in less than 18 months. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

As the holy month of Ramadan began, the bearded man in reflector sunglasses and a maple leaf-embroidered baseball cap recorded himself in a series of videos staking out Edmonton's largest mosque.

"So it's April 24th — the start of the Ramadan 'bombathon' and I'm just performing my civic duty to make sure that no one's actually showing up at the Al Rashid mosque," said the man, who had taken it upon himself to make sure worshippers were following a health order to contain the coronavirus.

After announcing plans to eat a bacon sandwich as Sweet Home Alabama played on the radio, another segment appeared to show the man driving into the mosque's parking lot while he counted vehicles. He recorded a woman with her baby and toddler, commenting: "Social distancing apparently." 

More than two weeks after the videos were posted to social media, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is among those questioning why charges have not been laid in this case, as well as in previous incidents.

"This is not the first time that white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the city of Edmonton have operated brazenly and have faced zero consequences," said Mustafa Farooq, lawyer and CEO of NCCM. 

"It means allowing those folks to feel that if they walk on the streets and they intimidate people, they're free to do so because they're not going to face charges," he said in a Friday interview with CBC.

The council is warning Edmonton police that far-right extremists are getting bolder as Islamophobic behaviour goes unchecked.

Lawyer Mustafa Farooq, with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, says the threshold for hate crimes is high but police have other options to lay charges, such as trespassing or uttering threats. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Edmonton police say its Hate Crimes and Violent Extremism Unit (HCEVU) is working closely with Al Rashid Mosque leadership on the investigation. 

"While police cannot always share their investigative process and updates with the public, the HCVEU fully investigates these events," police spokesperson Cheryl Voordenhout said in an email.

"Evidence is gathered, assessed and reviewed with the crown. Unless the criminal threshold for a hate crime is met and charges can be laid, there is, unfortunately, very little police can say publicly about a file."

A noose and hateful flyers

Farooq noted that no charges were laid following a January 2019 incident, in which security video recorded two men —both with ties to far-right Islamophobic hate groups — enter Al Rashid mosque as worshippers arrived for Friday prayers. The men later got into a confrontation with community members outside and streamed it on social media, the mosque says.

The hate crimes unit investigated but did not lay charges after a 2016 incident in which man reportedly approached two young women wearing hijabs, tied a rope into a noose and said 'This is for you,' before singing O Canada.

Investigations into the distribution of Islamophobic flyers have not resulted in charges either.

While the threshold to lay hate charges is higher, some lawyers — including Farooq, who has practiced criminal law in Alberta — suggest pressing easier-to-lay charges such as uttering threats, criminal harassment, trespassing or mischief relating to religious property.

"These are things that never seem to cross the Edmonton Police Service playbook as long as racialized communities are the ones in the cross-hairs," Farooq said.

The call for greater action comes alongside a rise in far-right nationalist groups as police-reported hate crimes soar. In 2017, Statistics Canada reported a 151 per cent spike in police-reported anti-Muslim hate crimes across Canada, NCCM says.

That same year, Canada saw the largest attack at a religious institution when Alexandre Bissonnette gunned down and murdered six people at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. Terrorist charges were never laid. Bissonette allegedly visited the mosque beforehand. 

"So when you have an individual in that context, lurking around a place of worship, making and uttering these words of 'bombathon', I think any reasonable person would be very concerned with that," said Edmonton lawyer Janan Jarrah in an interview Sunday.

"As a defence lawyer, I've seen people charged for saying and doing things far less concerning."

Defence lawyer Janan Jarrah says she has represented clients charged for doing a lot less than the man in the videos. (Google)

Jarrah said members of the Muslim community are genuinely fearful, pointing out that many children pray or attend community events at Al Rashid.

And like Farooq, Jarrah suggested a similar incident involving a non-Muslim faith group might be treated differently.

"The fact that criminal charges weren't laid seems to suggest that there may be a double standard at play here," Jarrah said. "It definitely makes you question why in this particular scenario the Muslim community isn't as deserving of a sanction against someone who does something like that."

Voordenhout said members of the police hate crimes unit pride themselves on having a great working relationship with Edmonton's Muslim community.

"HCVEU members work closely with leadership at Edmonton mosques, AMPAC [Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council], and the community at large to identify threats and respond accordingly," she wrote.

A spokesperson for the Al Rashid mosque could not be reached for comment.

The NCCM is set to launch a campaign on Monday asking Canadians to join the call for action on the latest incident by writing to Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee and the Edmonton police commission.

Consistent with equality?

If a Muslim was the main person in an incident like the April video, police and the public would be more likely to view it as a criminal activity rather than an exercise in freedom of speech, said Faisal Bhabha, a professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

"It's easier to explain away when the person looks like the individual that is depicted in those videos," said Bhabha, who specializes in constitutional law and national security.

"He's clearly a white guy. He's wearing a maple leaf hat. He's listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, classic rock. And he's eating a bacon sandwich. And those are all characteristics that align with a particular identity … And they're meant to signal a kind of 'I'm with you, I'm with the majority'."

In contrast, said Bhabha, someone who appeared as a minority would likely attract greater scrutiny, less understanding and more racism leading to law enforcement action, social repudiation or political intervention.

Bhabha said there may be other factors at play in police exercising their discretion to press charges, such as political considerations or an attempt to influence future behaviour by issuing a warning.

"But that kind of thing is more likely to happen if you're white and the police officer making the decision can relate to you," Bhabha said. "Whenever police exercise their discretion in a way that appears to be hypocritical … it's worth asking whether this is the kind of exercise of discretion that is consistent with equality and anti-discrimination."

 

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca