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Downtown Vancouver is framed between people standing along the shore of North Vancouver, on Nov. 25, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Police across Canada reported a 7-per-cent rise in hate crimes last year, according to new Statistics Canada data showing the prepandemic uptick was driven by more incidents targeting people over their race and sexual orientation.

Just more than three quarters of all hate crimes reported by police last year occurred in eight cities that tallied at least 70 incidents: Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto and Vancouver. For the second straight year, Hamilton had the highest rate of hate crimes per 100,000 people with 15.7, followed by Ottawa (10.8) and Quebec City (8.6).

The data recently released by Statistics Canada showed nationally, 1,946 hate crimes were reported by police agencies in 2019, up from 1,817 the year before, but still slightly below the record high in 2017.

For the past three years, cases have been way above the annual average of 1,473 hate crimes across the previous part of the decade, with experts stating this trend is an important barometer of Canada’s social cohesion in an increasingly polarized era. Last month, the FBI released its annual hate crimes statistics that showed 2019 had the highest number of these criminal incidents (7,314) reported in the past decade.

This year, police in Vancouver and other cities have reported a disturbing rise in hate-fuelled attacks against East Asian Canadians for the devastation wrought by COVID-19, which originated in China.

Some of the increase in 2019 hate crimes is likely driven by the politicians mainstreaming hateful rhetoric about race, gender or religion, as well as the toxic conversations on these topics that occur on social-media platforms, said Barbara Perry, an Oshawa-based hate crimes expert at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

“There have been public opinion polls that show expressions of prejudice are more acceptable, and that they feel freer to express these sorts of sentiments as well,” said Dr. Perry, who is the director of the university’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.

Almost half the hate crimes from last year (876) targeted people for their race or ethnicity, followed closely by their religious background (608). Attacks against people for their sexual orientation rose by 40 per cent last year from the one prior, with 263 incidents reported to Statistics Canada. Dr. Perry, who recently completed a report on the policing of hate crimes for the Ontario government, attributed this rise in part to the growth in far-right nationalism.

“Gay people are seen as race traitors, they’re not reproducing the white race therefore they’re the enemies,” said Dr. Perry, who has studied these extremist groups extensively.

Earlier this year, Statistics Canada reported the vast majority of hate crimes remain unsolved by police, with just 31 per cent being marked “cleared,” or solved, by investigators in 2018. That was up slightly from the rate of 28 per cent the year prior, but still lower than the 40-per-cent success rate police typically have solving other crimes.

Kristopher Wells, a professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University and a Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth, said it is important to remember the cases are reported to the federal agency through the system all police forces use to catalogue crimes. But they represent a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of hate incidents estimated to occur in a given year that go unreported because, for one reason or another, most victims do not turn to the police for justice.

“The value of collecting these statistics is we get a snapshot from a particular point in time about what’s happening in our communities, but the real important follow-up question is: What do we do about it?” Dr. Wells asked

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