Calgary sees jump in hate-motivated crimes with 346 reported to police in 2021

Calgary police say hate-motivated crimes surged this year by 44 per cent, with reported incidents of verbal assaults, physical assaults and property damage.

There were 346 hate-motivated crimes reported to police in 2021, compared to 240 in 2020. 

Police say the jump might be due to fewer incidents being reported in 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Last year people were staying home, not using the LRT and that sort of thing and our numbers were down,” said Gareth Joels, a sergeant with the Calgary Police Service’s Hate and Extremism Team.

“If I go back over the past four or five years, though, there’s been a steady increase, and 2021 certainly got us back onto that path.”

This year has seen a long list of high profile incidents where hate was determined to be a factor. 

This Sikh temple opposite the community of Cougar Ridge was targeted with graffiti sprayed on a road outside. The temple already beefed up security following a similar incident in 2016 where the building itself was targeted. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

In October, a Sikh temple in southwest Calgary was targeted by hateful graffiti sprayed on the road outside.

A south Asian woman was subject to a racist verbal attack on a train in September. In August, another woman was grabbed and called racial slurs while walking along Stephen Avenue.

In June, a Muslim woman with her children was verbally attacked downtown. Another woman was spat on and called the N-word.

In May, Police laid charges against a man who pulled over and attacked a Palestinian man’s car and made derogatory comments about Islam along with threats.

Earlier in the spring, a young Muslim woman had her hijab torn in a violent attack on Prince’s Island Park.

These are just a few of the incidents that made headlines where police say hate was a factor. There were many more that didn’t make headlines.

Tamer Abu Hassira, who moved to North America as a Palestinian refugee from the Gaza Strip, said a road rage incident in 2021 left him shaken and worried about safety for himself and his children. (Submitted by Tamer Abu Hassira)

Along with the rise in reported cases, confusion and frustration is increasing about the term ‘hate crime’ itself and what it really means when it comes to the law.

Many victims of racist abuse are confused to find out what happened to them wasn’t a hate crime when it comes to the criminal code, even though it might have involved hateful language and even violence.

“The ones by far that we deal with the most day-to-day are normal crimes. That could be assault, threats, property damage,” said Joels.

There are currently only four true hate crimes contained in Canada’s criminal code: genocide, incitement of hatred, willful promotion of hatred and mischief to religious property. 

Joels says just because a victim perceives name-calling or verbal abuse to be a hate crime against them it doesn’t mean that it is.

But if police can prove that hate was a motivation in any crime that’s been committed, it can mean harsher sentencing options when a case goes to court, even though it doesn’t meet the criteria to be recognized as a true hate crime.

“It doesn’t change the investigation that much but … if that person is found guilty in court it allows the judge to provide a more significant penalty at the end of trial,” said Joels.

Saima Jamal, co-founder of the Calgary Immigrant Support Society, says many victims of racist, hateful attacks never report them because they’re worried they won’t be believed or that police will tell them what they experienced wasn’t a hate crime. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Saima Jamal, who works with refugees and newcomers in Calgary, says she’s been seeing hate crimes, especially against Muslims, almost weekly this year — but many victims don’t report the incidents because their calls are not taken seriously.

“I’ve seen so many women and men being the victims of hate crime and the first fear is them reporting it, because there’s that fear that the police won’t believe them,” she said.

“When the police do come, it’s like they almost try to talk the victims out of thinking what just happened was a hate crime. Many don’t seem to have much training or sensitivity around hate incidents.”

Calgary police say all officers receive training around hate crimes as new recruits. 

Jamal says while hate as a motivation can be taken into account at the end of the sentencing process, that part of the process is hidden from view and it’s usually a mystery as to what happened.

As well as a more sympathetic response from police, Jamal wants more politicians to speak out about the rise in hate crimes and incidents at the provincial level.

She says earlier this year the provincial government was largely silent on a flurry of serious hate-motivated crimes against Muslims and minorities all over Alberta. 

“I never see any genuine anger or passion on this issue. It’s frustrating. Shouldn’t there be some condemnation? There’s none. Just silence from our provincial government and premier, nothing.”

Broadening the definition of hate crime not easy

Jamal says she’d support a change to the criminal code to broaden the definition of a hate crime to include the verbal and physical attacks that make up the majority of incidents.

But justice experts say that’s not easy to do.

“Anything related to government takes time and we’re fooling ourselves if we think it could be done quickly,” said Doug King with Mount Royal University’s department of justice studies.

King says another problem is that it’s a difficult area for police to navigate. Different agencies and jurisdictions having different stances and standards on what constitutes a hate-motivated crime. He say agencies can interpret the law in different ways.

“There can be provincial and territorial variations that can be frustrating,” said King.

He says the real solution to tackling hate crime won’t come from changing the application of law. It’s just one factor.

“It’s how we view differences in society,” said King. “It’s how we educate our children.”

Verbal and physical attacks, which make up the majority of hate-motivated incidents, don’t meet the criteria of a hate crime as defined in Canada’s criminal code. (corgarashu/Shutterstock)

Calgary police say they carry out community presentations and town halls at mosques, synagogues, churches and community association groups as part of education initiatives to tackle hate-motivated crime.

Gareth Joels with CPS says they are putting out a hate information package in six different languages to help racialized communities fully understand what a hate crime is and what to do if it happens to them

They are also running two university focus groups dedicated to the topic and presenting in junior high schools to talk about hate and the impact on victims.

“It’s still a subject the majority of people don’t understand and sometimes don’t care to understand until they need to,” Joels said.

Joels says CPS is running internal initiatives to help address hate at the front lines of policing and support officers in their investigations.

He hopes more education and training will lead to increased confidence around reporting incidents when they happen, and an improved awareness and response from officers on the street when they respond.

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