A charge of causing a hate-motivated public disturbance has been stayed against a Calgary man after his recent arrest for leading a rally in a controversial pro-Palestinian chant.
On Friday, the lawyer for Wesam Cooley announced that provincial Crown prosecutors had reviewed the file and stayed, which came after Mr. Cooley shouting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” at a protest outside City Hall on Nov. 5. The arrest touched off a national debate over freedom of speech amid the Israel-Hamas war.
Calgary Police Services did not offer a detailed explanation as to why the Crown did not support their charge, which was laid after a discussion with its designated hate-crimes officer. Instead, the force issued a statement Friday saying that police “operate considering reasonable and probable grounds whereas the Crown’s threshold is higher at reasonable likelihood of conviction.”
Calgary’s specialized hate-crimes prosecutors did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s request for comment Friday.
Zachary al-Khatib, Mr. Cooley’s Edmonton-based lawyer, said he is glad the Crown reined in police overstepping their authority to criminalize his client’s free speech.
“There’s no public interest in pursuing this and the legal merit to a prosecution is just completely not there,” he said in a phone interview, adding that Mr. Cooley had to agree to “unconstitutional” bail conditions such as not attending further rallies for the two weeks since the charge was laid.
Calgary police were the first in the country to weigh in on whether shouting the chant in public – as tens of thousands of Canadians have done at rallies over the past five weeks – is a hate crime.
While many protesters say the phrase is a political demand for equal rights for Palestinians within Israel’s borders and the occupied territories, many Jewish organizations in Canada see the call-and-response chant as an exhortation to destroy Israel and its people.
The Criminal Code only identifies four actual hate crimes: three hate propaganda offences (advocating genocide, publicly inciting hatred and willfully promoting it) as well as mischief at religious or cultural sites. Police need their provincial attorney-general to sign off on any charges of advocating genocide or willfully promoting hatred, and only a handful of these cases have made it to court over the past decade.
On Nov. 5, Calgary officers charged Mr. Cooley, 32, with a standard crime (causing a public disturbance, in this instance) and then appended hate motivation to the offence. If the case had proceeded, a judge would have had to decide if Mr. Cooley was first guilty of disturbing the public and then whether, as police were alleging, he was motivated by hate. If this bias was proved, the judge would weigh whether to hand out a heavier punishment.
Calgary police have declined to explicitly say which phrase netted Mr. Cooley a charge, just that, beforehand, officers discussed “some of the language and signage” at past City Hall protests with the organizers of the rally and those leading a counterprotest in support of Israel happening across the street.
In a statement released right after his arrest and charge, the department said Mr. Cooley then kicked off the rally by acknowledging this prior conversation and proceeding to “repeatedly use an antisemitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along.”
Cam Stewart, an adviser to the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee who spent a quarter century policing in Calgary, much of that time as a diversity liaison officer and training co-ordinator, said he was surprised the charge was laid in the first place, given how hard it is to prove in court that someone was motivated by hate to commit a crime.
Detective Kiran Bisla said her Toronto Police Services hate-crimes unit has reviewed complaints from the public wanting them to charge demonstrators for using this chant and consulted with the provincial attorney-general’s office. Det. Bisla’s unit and provincial legal experts concluded that – on its own – the phrase does not meet the threshold of being hate speech.
She also said at a technical briefing last week that Toronto police would not consider tagging a case as motivated by hate if someone was charged with causing a public disturbance and was riling up a crowd with the chant in question.
However, that phrase could be interpreted by Toronto’s investigators as hateful if someone was, for instance, shouting it while assaulting someone, she told The Globe when asked about the recent charge in Calgary.