Ottawans who've experienced hate reflect on rising incidents in the city

Some residents of Ottawa say they feel a two-year trend of rising hate crimes as they move through the city, others say they just know how experiencing a hate-motivated incident has affected them.

Even years after hate-motivated incidents, some residents say they're still affected

From left to right, Ottawa residents Misha Jan, Justin Tang and Rabbi Idan Scher all shared their experiences with hate crimes with CBC News. (Submitted)

Some Ottawa residents say they're keenly aware of a two-year trend of rising hate crimes in the city.

The number of hate crimes reported to Ottawa police has been on the rise, jumping from 119 in 2019 to 340 last year.

The national numbers reflect that trend, with new data from Statistics Canada finding a 37 per cent increase in hate crimes reported to police in 2020. 

While police say these numbers are concerning, they also say it doesn't give the full picture, as many incidents are never reported.

Idan Scher, senior rabbi at Ottawa's Machzikei Hadas synagogue, said he feels hate crimes are on the rise "absolutely, 100 per cent."

Scher says he's approached by people in their teens and 20s "struggling with how [to] publicly identify as a Jew" when they've experienced so much hate.

"I see people grappling with it more and more and, especially, over these past couple of years," Scher said.

Rabbi Idan Scher, the senior rabbi at Ottawa's Machzikei Hadas synagogue, was on the receiving end of racial slurs while filling up his car with gas in December 2021. (Luther Caverly)

'It's probably not going to be the last time'

Everyone CBC spoke to for this story said hate and discrimination have always been part of their lives.

Scher said he speaks bluntly about his experiences as they've been pervasive since he started wearing a kippah — a brimless head covering also known as a yarmulke — around nine years old. 

But in December 2021, it reached a new level, he said. Before then, no one had ever told him they wanted to kill him.

Scher was on his way to teach an evening class at his synagogue. He stopped for gas near his house with his daughter, just over a year old, in his car.

A man came up close, Scher said, and started staring at him. Scher said he ignored him, but as he put his credit card info into the gas pump, the man began belting a slew of racial slurs and swear words. 

"He started to say that I am going to kill you, you [racial expletive]. He said that once and then a second time," Scher said.

"I couldn't think of anything else, other than I have my baby daughter here with me. I just put the gas pump away and got into my car and drove off."

Scher called the experience "jarring and so, so shocking." He said he didn't share that experience widely, but possibly should have. 

"It was just very interesting ... the people that I told this to, who had never experienced something like this, they were traumatized and were checking in on me over and over again," Scher said.

"It could have been my six-year-old daughter hearing that I was going to be killed because I was a Jew. It could have been my nine-year-old son hearing that," he added. "That's where it becomes emotionally overwhelming." 

Misha Jan, now 21, said experiencing an Islamophobic verbal attack when she was a teen derailed her high school experience. (CBC)

'When I'm wearing a hijab, I feel really unsafe'

Misha Jan chose to study psychology at Carleton University after coming to grips with the trauma of the Islamophobia she experienced as a teen — and understanding that helping others unravel their own trauma was her passion. 

The 21-year-old said it was just in the last year and a half that she realized the implications of an experience she had when she was 14.

When Jan was in Grade 9 at St. Francis Xavier High School, she was approached by a group of "very intimidating" upper-year students she didn't know. 

"They kind of circled around me and questioned why I wore a hijab. They asked what that was on my head, why I had to wear it," she said. 

"They asked if I was a terrorist." 

Jan said the principal spoke to the students, but since it wasn't an ongoing thing, she felt there wasn't anything else that could be done. 

Her experience set her down an unhealthy path, physically and emotionally. Jan said she found herself trying to appease her bullies, and in the process neglected her own safety and well-being.

"It had a lot of effects. Obviously, I was very vulnerable at the time," she said. "It got me involved in the wrong things. I got involved with the wrong people. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to feel accepted."

She left the school one month later and transferred to the Ottawa Islamic School, but didn't last long there either. She ended up finishing high school at Merivale High School and stopped wearing the hijab, except to attend mosque.

Jan says she's struggled to understand the impact, even as she's faced it with the help of therapy.

"It's like going through life with a bunch of invisible bricks over your shoulder and being told to do the same things that everyone else is doing. And when you don't do it, you're judged for it," she said.

"When I'm wearing a hijab, I feel really unsafe."

Photojournalist Justin Tang outside Rideau Cottage, March 29, 2020. (Adam Scotti - PMO/CPM)

'Until it happens to you ... you don't really understand'

In October 2020, photojournalist Justin Tang was heading to the Rideau Centre to get his glasses adjusted.

A man held the door for a woman in front of him, and Tang went in behind. As the two entered the mall, they put masks on.

The man then told Tang: "Having to wear a mask makes me want to kill Asians." 

Tang said he turned to him and said, "Man, that's really not nice, that's not a kind thing to say." The man repeated himself. 

Wanting to keep the interaction low-key, Tang said they parted ways — but he was still rattled.

"I was shaken up by it because I didn't know what this person's intentions were," he said.

Tang said he's had people yell racist things at him out of car windows, among other experiences, but this was the first time he'd felt the need to report anything to the police. 

"I don't know if he [was serious] or not. And you know, at this point, it doesn't actually matter," he said. "Because if they are, and I say nothing and someone gets hurt ... that would be not acceptable for me." 

Tang said he still feels the history of that spot whenever he's near, and it took effort to go through the same door only a few months after.

Two years later, Tang said he's still alarmed someone said something like that to his face, and he's spent that time doing a lot of reflection. 

"It kind of felt like just another negative thing that can happen — and does happen every day — to people who aren't white," he said. 

"Until it happens to you, I think you don't really understand." 

Fae Johnstone, Godlove Ngwafusi, and Rabbi Idan Scher share their thoughts on the growing number of hate crimes in the city, how these incidents have personally affected them and what changes need to happen to combat racism in Ottawa.