Rise in Montreal hate crimes just 'tip of the iceberg,' activist says

Overall, 39 more incidents were reported in Montreal in 2015, for a total of 169, making for a 29 per cent increase over the previous year. Only Edmonton and Winnipeg saw higher percentage increases, according to Statistics Canada.

Increase in 2015 among highest in country, according to Statistics Canada

A young woman attends a vigil in Montreal for victims of the shooting at a Quebec City mosque earlier this year. Reported hate crimes increased in the province in 2015, according to a new report. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The latest figures showing an increase in reported hate crimes in Montreal, particularly those targeting Muslims, are just the "tip of the iceberg," according to one of the city's leading anti-racism activists.

Haroun Bouazzi said the new report from Statistics Canada underscores the challenge ahead in Montreal and across the country in dealing with racist views. 

"We have been seeing in the field, from the reports we're getting, from the calls we're getting, from victims, that hate crimes are actually on the rise. We're noticing also that most people don't go to the police," Bouazzi, co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec, said in an interview Tuesday.

"So the situation is getting worse and worse and now it's time to take action."

Overall, 39 more incidents were reported in Montreal in 2015, for a total of 169, making for a 29 per cent increase over the previous year. Only Edmonton and Winnipeg saw higher percentage increases, according to Statistics Canada.

Across the country, there were 1,362 criminal incidents motivated by hate, 67 more than the previous year.

Numbers only tell part of story

Statistics Canada noted that the numbers presented Tuesday likely undercount "the true extent of hate crime in Canada, as not all crimes are reported to police."

Haroun Bouazzi is co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec. (Kate McKenna/CBC)
At the same time, however, part of the reason for the overall increase may be greater public awareness and a greater comfort in coming forward.

In 2015, police services increased outreach to ethnic groups, while the National Council of Canadian Muslims made efforts to encourage the reporting of hate crimes to police.

The group's vice-chairman, Khalid Elgazzar, called 2015 a "difficult year" for Muslim Canadians, as two terrorist attacks in France inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment and former prime minister Stephen Harper made a woman's right to wear a veil at citizenship ceremonies a "central issue" of the election campaign.

"The Canadian Muslim community bore the brunt of sinister political rhetoric surrounding the federal election which painted Muslims as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers as well as being anti-women," he said during a news conference on Parliament Hill.

Montreal, for its part, has taken steps to address the issue. Police established a new unit last year dedicated to investigating incidents motivated by hate.

"The incidents have a troubling effect on the victims and lead to a heightened sense of insecurity," Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said at the announcement in May 2016.

Mosque shooting, political discourse

That unit hasn't curbed the problem, however, and Montreal police reported an increase in hate-related incidents in the days following the Quebec City mosque shooting.  

Bouazzi said the problem isn't limited to Quebec, but the political discourse here hasn't helped.

In particular, he pointed to a recent the debate over the Parti Québécois's Charter of Values, a proposal that had many Muslims in the province feeling targeted.

​"We actually broke what is morality in Quebec, and now it becomes moral to actually go against the rights of Muslim minorities and, obviously, this has an impact," he said. 

After being the target of vandalism on multiple instances, the Dorval Mosque installed cameras on the side of the building, but mosque president Mehmet Deger says that hasn't quelled the fears of the people inside.

"We are still worried, and they're asking me to hire a security guard every day but we don't have that kind of money," he told CBC News.

He said he's working with police and has asked for extra patrolling at night.

Additional measures in place, says public security ministry

A representative from Quebec's public security ministry wrote in a statement that the government condemns all hate crimes, and said additional policing measures are in place to curb the problem.

Provincial police work with its partners in the anti-terrorism department and supervises online activity. After the attack in the Quebec City mosque, the ministry sent out reminders to Quebec police directors on two occasions, reminding them to be vigilant and take hate crime reports seriously.

with files from The Canadian Press