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Hamilton responds to crimes of hate Add to ...

A year ago, the Hindu Samaj Temple was gutted in an arson attack that left only the charred remains of giant marble shrines. In those same, early hours of Sept. 15, 2001, someone broke windows at the Hamilton Mosque a few kilometres away.

Both incidents were dramatic signs of a surge in hate-based crimes across Canada after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

To the chagrin of many Hamiltonians, the ethnically diverse, working-class city of 490,000 was suddenly big news on CNN for the wrong reasons.

But what drew less attention was how the city responded: first with local acts of kindness, and then with a formal civic effort to confront racism head-on, including public forums on community values that are to start at the end of this month.

"There was shock it would happen in our community," said Carolyn Milne, president of the Hamilton Community Foundation. "It helped us face the fact there are these episodes."

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Hamilton police reported an average of six hate or bias incidents a month. From September to December of 2001, the average jumped to 22 a month, levelling off to 12 a month in the first half of this year.

Some see Hamilton's response to the rise in hate crimes as a possible model for other Canadian cities. Hamilton police have set up a dedicated hate-crimes unit. City council appointed a new equity-and-access officer. Religious groups now regularly visit each other's places of worship.

Perhaps boldest of all, civic leaders have committed themselves to talking openly about the problems minorities face, and to take action.

"What changed is a willingness on the part of people in a position to effect change to say, 'Let's open this Pandora's box,' " says Trinidad-born Gary Warner, a McMaster University professor and a leader of the Strengthening Hamilton's Community initiative that grew out of the incidents.

Advocates for minority groups are heartened by the exercise, which heads to the street later this month. On Sept. 30, Mayor Bob Wade will kick off a series of 12 public forums to hear from residents about community values.

He also hosted a roundtable of top civic and religious leaders in November, and was shocked when the police chief declared the city had a "crisis" in its race relations, noting that Muslim women were being harassed on their way to the grocery store.

"I thought, this is not right. This is Canada. No one should have this happening to them," Mr. Wade said. "I realized that we were not, as citizens of this city and as Canadians, being treated equally."

At the neighbourhood level, residents first reacted to the Sept. 15 incidents with warmth and spontaneity. Gordon MacPhail, who had no previous contact with the 400 families who worship at the Hindu Temple site, loaned several large tents for two months for services.

"It was pretty devastating for everyone," Mr. MacPhail said. "But it turned out kind of beautiful."

The nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints opened its doors so that Hindu families could use the Mormon church on Sunday afternoons.

Narendar Passi, past president of the Hindu temple, was overwhelmed. "It made us feel good that we were in a community that cared," he said, noting that there had been no previous incidents before the fire. The police assume that the culprits -- so far one person has been charged with arson -- may have confused the Hindu temple with the Muslim mosque.

 

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