A tolerant nation's hiddenshame
A federal study suggests that thousands may be victims of hate crime
On an especially cold and starry December night 20 months ago, Ed Pollak was walking home after dinner in downtown Toronto when a gay-basher’s punch knocked out one of his teeth, rotated another in its socket and crushed his lips against his metal braces. At the same time, a second assailant shoved Poliak’s male partner to the ground and repeatedly kicked him in the stomach, legs and head, raising bruises, Poliak said later, “the size of grapefruit.” A witness said he heard the attackers yelling “faggots!” several times. The two, both university students, were convicted of assault causing bodily harm, sentenced to she months in prison and placed on probation for two years.
Their appeals against conviction and sentence—which Crown attorney Michael Leshner vainly protested as too lenient—will likely be heard in December. Meanwhile,
Poliak, a 31-year-old dentist, says he has stopped bragging to American friends about Toronto’s safe streets.
“I avoid going out at night as much as I can,” he says. “I’m not quite paranoid, but I look back when someone is coming up behind me.”
Poliak’s ordeal not only made him uneasy about being out after dark. It also put him in the company of Canadians who have been the targets of hate-motivated crime, the extent of which is only now becoming apparent. No one knows precisely how many Jews, blacks, Asians, native people, gays and lesbians are murdered, beaten, threatened or harassed—or have their homes, schools and places of worship vandalized—every year. But a confidential study commissioned by the federal justice department suggests that across a nation that has always prided itself on tolerance, there may be as many as 9,000 hate-inspired crimes annually—vastly more than are reported to police by fearful victims.
Law-enforcement agencies and social scientists say there are several factors behind the attacks. One is the calculated and contagious spreading of hate by gay-bashing white-supremacist skinheads whose numbers, the New York City-based Anti-Defamation League concluded in late June, have reached 70,000 in 30 countries worldwide. Another is a generalized anti-immigration sentiment, evident in public opinion polls for several years, which has hardened in tough times. ‘The ground is very, very fertile for hate-motivated activity,” says Staff Sgt. Dan Dunlop, head of the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police hate-crimes unit. “I definitely think this is going to get worse.”
In June, in an attempt to discourage those who prey on minorities, the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien won overwhelming House of Commons approval for a hate-crime bill after days of bitter, name-calling opposition from Reform MPs—and four Liberals—who claimed that it conferred special status on gays and lesbians. The legislation directs judges to impose stiffer sentences where there is evidence that a crime was motivated by hatred of a victim’s race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual preference. To some extent, the new law merely codifies what has become the sentencing practice in several provinces. In 1978, for example, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the Crown by increasing from eight months to two years less a day the sentences given to three defendants, two of them juveniles, who savagely beat and permanently disabled three homosexual men in a public park. The trial judge, wrote Justice Charles Dubin, failed to take into account the “public abhorrence” of gay-bashing.
Yet only in the past two or three years have some municipal police departments begun classifying crime as hate-induced. And the way
'The ground is very, very fertile for hate-motivated activity’
— Staff Sgt. Dan Dunlop, Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police Hate Crimes Unit
they define hate crime—and the resources they have committed to fighting it—varies considerably from city to city. Even so, the statistics are sobering. In Toronto the Good, last year’s total of 249 incidents was up sharply from 155 in 1993. The Ottawa region, with only one-sixth of Metro Toronto’s population, recorded 211 hate crimes, up slightly from 1993’s 176. Montreal had 199 hate crimes in 1994, its first full year of reporting. The League for Human Rights, an activist agency of the 120-year-old Jewish service organization known as B’nai Brith Canada, says there were 290 “anti-Semitic incidents” across Canada last year, an increase of 34 over 1993 and more than twice as many as in 1984.
But the numbers may be hugely deceptive. If, as some authorities suggest, no more than five to 15 per cent of victims ever come forward, then hate crimes may already number in the thousands annually. In his 38-page hate-crime study for the justice department—a copy of which was obtained by Maclean’s—University of Ottawa criminologist Julian Roberts estimated that as much as 95 per cent of some categories of crime never comes to light. “The percentage of offences not reported to the police may be particularly high for hate crimes,” Roberts said. Among the reasons: fear of reprisal and, among nonwhites and gays, lack of faith in the justice system. And despite the historic Canadian claim to virtue, there are “strong parallels,” Roberts wrote, “between the nature of hate crime in Canada and elsewhere.” Brian Ford, the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police chief, sees his share of it “My impression,” says Ford, “is that there is more intolerance involving gays and lesbians, blacks and religious groups, principally Jews.”
Anti-Semitism most often finds expression in neo-Nazi graffiti scrawled on Jewish gravestones, synagogues, cultural institutions and schools. Some time before dawn last March 1, someone spray-painted
hate messages on the walls of Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, a Jewish high school in north Winnipeg that has 30 teachers and 300 students in grades 7 to 12. Jerry Cohen, the 56-year-old principal, says “one of the messages had a swastika on it and it said, ‘Die Jews’ and then it said, ‘88 Brothers.’ During the police investigation, somebody said that H is the eighth letter of the alphabet and ‘88’ or ‘HH’ is another way of saying ‘Heil Hitler.’ The words written on another wall said, ‘Pre-final solution, 1.5 million Jews; post-final solution, six million dead Jews. Good math.’ ” (NeoNazis and others who deny that the Holocaust ever took place argue that six million Jews could not have died in Hitler’s camps because, they claim, there were only 1.5 million in Europe to begin with.) Incidents like that have long been familiar to Karen Mock. A psychologist and national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, Mock, who says she has received death threats in the mail, estimates that the 290 anti-Semitic incidents mentioned in the league’s 30-page 1994 report is probably no more than 10 to 15 per cent of the actual number. “Some people don’t want to make waves,” she said. “They don’t want to attract attention or they’re too afraid.” By contrast, the league hammers away at hate crime and discrimination with relentless single-mindedness—and not only on behalf of Jews. Its seven-member staff and 200 volunteers have also championed the rights of blacks, Chinese and native people for 30 years—and more recently the rights of homosexuals—and even opened a dialogue with Muslims when ArabCanadians found themselves harassed during the 1991 Gulf War.
The fact is that while attacks on religious minorities provoke terror and outrage, their numbers are a distant second to those directed at nonwhites. In his report to the justice department, the University of Ottawa’s Roberts said that 61 per cent of the hate crimes identified by police across Canada were racial, 23 per cent were motivated by religion, 11 per cent were against gays and lesbians, while ethnic minorities absorbed the remaining five per cent. While that breakdown reflects the experience of the United States, Roberts said, the actual numbers in Canada will not be known until authorities begin collecting more accurate statistics. “At present,” Roberts said, “Canada lags far behind other nations in this regard.”
Racial friction has been widely reported between whites and Nova Scotia’s 30,000 blacks; against immigrant Haitians in Montreal; against natives across the country; against south Asians in Toronto and British Columbia. In the central British Columbia town of 100 Mile House last Oct. 8, intruders ransacked the local Sikh community’s temple. They plugged the sinks and left the water running, flooding the basement. They smashed windows and scattered flour and sugar over the interior. One of them punched and broke a clock. Worst of all, the shrine and the Guru Granth Sahib—the scriptures of the 500-year-old Sikh religion—were damaged. Sikhs hold their scriptures in such reverence that they will touch them only with clean hands and heads covered. Two juveniles and a 19-year-old companion pleaded guilty to breaking and entering. They were placed on two years’ probation, and ordered to pay restitution and perform community service.
One member of the Sikh congregation, Sohan Singh Mudhar, testified that he felt no hatred towards the vandals: “They’re just kids who
don’t understand our religion.” But that forgiveness is tinged with caution, perhaps fear; recently, Mudhar declined to comment further on the temple desecration. “Sometimes, if you advertise, these people will turn against you,” he said.
Hatred leaves scars often worse than those caused by physical violence. Ottawa’s Dunlop cites the case of a man from Grenada who was attacked and beaten by skinheads early on a weekday morning while waiting for a traffic light to change. “This guy comes into our office and he sits here, and I swear to God it took him an hour and a half before he could even speak, before he could compose himself enough to give us a statement,” Dunlop said. “Here’s a 35-year-old construction worker, weeping like a baby. It wasn’t because of physical injury; it was the psychological trauma. He says, ‘I didn’t realize I was black until I came to this country.’ ”
For blacks who were bom in Canada, life can be equally perilous. Darryl Gray, the 40-year-old black activist pastor of Guysborough Road Baptist Church in Halifax County, says a fight broke out between black and white students at Auburn High School in neighboring Cole Harbor one day last May. Afterward, a white student said to a black girl: “If I had a gun, I would shoot all of you.” As for himself, says Gray, “I’ve received several threats on the phone. I’ve been told that my days are numbered. I’ve been told that I’m on a hit list. I’ve been told not to underestimate the
I’ve received several threats on the phone. I’ve been told my days are numbered’
— Black activist clergyman Darryl Gray,Halifax
white power structure in Nova Scotia. I’ve shared these conversations with the RCMP. After 20 years in the civil rights movement, you learn to be cautious.”
The shame, torment, fear and rage aroused among those squarely in hatred’s firing line is incalculable, says Roberts, and so are the implications. “The point about hate crimes is that the harm is not restricted to just the victim,” he says. “The harm lies in the atmosphere of fear and apprehension to which all hate crimes contribute.” That reality shapes lives and sharpens instincts among racial minorities. “You feel it every
day, but there is no concrete evidence,” says Jules Elder, 50, managing editor of the weekly black and West Indian newspaper Share, published in Toronto. ‘You see it when you walk into stores, you see that the security is heightened. You see it on the subway. When I get on in the morning to go to work, there aren’t too many people. Gradually, the car fills up, but often nobody sits next to me. Sometimes, people are rushing and you may bump into someone
and they’ll say, You f-nigger, why don’t you go back where
you came from,’ stuff like that. We get envelopes at the newspaper from people who write things like, This is why we should kill all the niggers.’ Every month or so, I will see one of those envelopes and I’ll joke with the staff, ‘Ah, here’s my clipping service.’ ”
At 43,200, Share’s circulation is the largest of any ethnic paper in Canada. The 25-member staff includes several whites. “The first reporter we hired was a French-Canadian,” says Elder. “A white girl.” But the most protracted fight against race-based hatred belongs to the country’s native people, who have waged it one way or another for hundreds of years. That generalized ill will, says Rodney Bobbiwash, former antiracism co-ordinator at Toronto’s Native In0 dian Centre, became more focused and more violent with the rise of the white supremacy movement early in this century. Natives,
he said, have been battling the Ku Klux Klan since it first organized in Canada in the 1920s.
In recent years, says Bobbiwash, the Klan has been joined by such extremist organizations as the Heritage Front and the Aryan Nations, which circulate hate literature among groups that find themselves in conflict with natives: hunting and fishing associations, the logging industry and those opposed to native treaty rights. Bobbiwash, now director of First Nations House, a native students’ centre at the University of Toronto, says: “Native peoples are an easy target for racists because there is such an underlying current of racism against natives.”
Fighting hate crime is no easy task. Among the most aggressive in the pursuit of hatemongers is the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police, which, Roberts says, probably has the most organized anti-hate-crime unit in the country. The three-member Ottawa unit functions independently within the department and conducts follow-up investigations of reports from officers in the field. It has achieved striking results: in the two years ending last Dec. 31, the unit counted 387 hate-crime incidents and laid 126 criminal charges. (Metropolitan
Toronto, with six times the population, had 404 incidents and 121 arrests in the same period.) Ottawa’s Dunlop sees ample justification for his unit. “If you have special units out there looking at breaking and entering and auto theft,” he says, “why wouldn’t you have units that deal specifically with the issue of hate crime?”
Across the country, hatred has taken different forms. In January, 1993, female employees arriving at work at a downtown Winnipeg building found a note taped to the front door that said: “All women must die. All women are sluts. I have a gun for them all.” At Kentville, in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, flyers were circulated last April claiming that a number of Jewish doctors are a detriment to the healthcare system. In Montreal, where 13 homosexual men have been slain since 1989, gays have told police they fear a serial killer is on the loose. Swastikas were painted on the windows of the downtown Toronto office of Joel Ginsberg, a Tory candidate in last June’s Ontario election.
Often the hate is hand-delivered. Cynthia Petersen, a 30-year-old University of Ottawa law professor and a lesbian, says that as an adolescent living in Montreal she was occasionally beaten up by schoolmates who suspected she was gay. While studying law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., “I was verbally harassed and physically threatened by other students.” Last summer, Petersen says, a male
friend walking out of a gay bar was so badly beaten by several men that he had to be taken to hospital. He did not tell the police. Skinheads, shouting epithets and wearing swastikas, once followed Petersen and her partner halfway home from an afternoon movie. “Fear is part of my life,” she says.
In fact, although the hatecrime bill had wide support among minorities, some critics thought it did not go far enough. Mark Sandler, senior legal counsel to the League for Human Rights, says Ottawa should do two things: first, empower judges to impose sentences higher than the maximum prescribed by the Criminal Code for a specific offence if it was motivated by hatred; and second, make the desecration of public and religious institutions crimes on their own. As it is now, Sandler says, those who deface synagogues, mosques, Asian temples or graveyards “are dealt with under the mischief section of the Criminal Code, which is what they use when a kid tears an antenna off a car.” Besides, says Sandler, if a person convicted of spray-painting swastikas on a synagogue should subsequently be charged with another hate crime, his criminal record would show only a conviction for mischief, “which really undervalues the seriousness of the offence.”
The University of Ottawa’s Roberts agrees. The law, he said, has to make hate crime a more visible target by creating “new criminal offences which would better reflect the true nature of hate crimes” such as the desecration of religious places. At the same time, he said, all major police departments should recruit and train specialized hatecrime units. “However,” he added, “nothing is more critical than having an accurate idea of the true nature and full extent of the problem.” Something has to be done, says Ottawa’s Dunlop: “The hot topics right now are immigration and employment equity, and the most vulnerable people are usually the victims. In times like these, scapegoats are required.” Across Canada, midway through the long, hot summer, scapegoats would appear to be in plentiful supply. □