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People attend a rally opposing discrimination against Asian communities and to mourn the victims and all those affected by the Atlanta shootings, in Toronto on Sunday, March 28, 2021.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Constable Ashlee-Lynn Mailloux starts each shift by reading all the reports of hate crimes that have streamed in overnight from across Montreal. Then she contacts the victims to let them know one of the investigators in her five-person unit will call them back within a day or two.

She also phones people back if they have reported incidents that do not rise to the level of criminal offence – such as having racial slurs hurled at them in public – and offers them and their families access to further supports. She always tries to make them feel safer by giving them tips on how to protect themselves.

“We don’t want their self esteem to change. That’s very important,” said Constable Mailloux, who joined Montreal’s hate crimes unit three years ago. “I do believe that it creates trust – that they feel supported, that they will share the information with family and friends that the Montreal police helped.”

Eight years of policing data from a recent Globe and Mail investigation show Montreal was among the most effective of Canada’s 13 largest municipal and regional police forces at uncovering hate-related crimes and catching suspects. It laid charges for 27 per cent of hate crimes offences, the second-highest rate in the country. After Constable Mailloux’s unit was created in June, 2016, Montreal doubled the average number of hate crimes cases it opened annually and began solving them at a much higher clip.

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The Montreal Police attribute some of their success to the “reassurance protocol” Constable Mailloux and her colleagues employ. It’s a system the force says helps victims grapple with the damage hate crimes do to individuals and their communities, even when the incidents aren’t criminal. And it’s part of a wave of reforms, some already enacted and some merely proposed, that are beginning to improve the often-inadequate handling of hate crimes by police across the country.

Better explaining police investigations to victims and offering more supports builds confidence in the system, experts say, and will in turn lead to more people reporting hate crimes – a crucial step. Only a fifth of hate-crime victims ever call 9-1-1, according to Statistics Canada’s best estimate.

People hold up signs during a vigil in memory of a Muslim family that was killed in London, Ontario in what police describe as a hate-motivated attack, in Montreal on June 11, 2021.ANDREJ IVANOV/Reuters

Staff Sergeant Feras Ismail, who once led the Peel Regional Police Service’s hate crimes unit and now works in its training department, said that in 2019 his force began contacting anyone who reported any incident with a hint of hate. Ottawa and Calgary’s police departments recently committed to putting more resources toward investigating hate crimes, and have now also begun responding within a day or two to anyone who reports a hate-related incident.

But speedy responses and open lines of communication are not the norm. Over the past decade, according to survivors and community groups in many cities, it has been much more common for people who report hate crimes to be met with silence.

Chevi Rabbit, a transgender Cree woman from the Montana First Nation, said Edmonton police’s lack of follow-up after she was targeted in a hate-motivated assault near the University of Alberta almost a decade ago compounded her troubles. After interviewing her about her initial complaint, police didn’t contact her until a year later, in 2013. During a brief phone call, they said they couldn’t find her attacker.

Ms. Rabbit, a successful makeup artist at the time, was blindsided by crippling anxiety immediately after the assault. She dropped out of school and began abusing alcohol.

“It was just me and my family to pick up the pieces,” Ms. Rabbit, now 35, said recently.

Edmonton and 10 other police forces recently joined a new RCMP task force aimed at creating national standards for the policing of hate crimes. The group’s existence is an acknowledgment that Canada’s current approach is uneven at best and indifferent at worst.

But policing experts, hate-crimes academics, survivors and their advocates tell The Globe that doing better shouldn’t be complicated, because many of the solutions are already known. Contacting victims without delay and doing a better job of supporting them is just the beginning.

Police officers patrol a city park in Montreal, Sunday, April 11, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Code

The federal government should amend the Criminal Code, say some community organizations and former police investigators. The legislation’s hate-related provisions are cumbersome and vague, which can make it difficult for front-line officers to lay charges, according to policing experts.

The code identifies four types of hate crimes: one is mischief at religious or cultural sites, and the other three are hate propaganda offences (advocating genocide, publicly inciting hatred and willfully promoting it).

In most hate-related cases – upward of 90 per cent in some cities – the offender is first charged with a core offence, such as assault or vandalizing property, rather than one of the four hate crimes defined in the Code. The offender’s motivation for committing the core crime is supposed to be factored in at sentencing, when a judge can hand down a stiffer penalty if the court finds hate was a factor. But this rarely happens, according to a 2020 Department of Justice study, as well as current and former investigators.

Cam Stewart spent a quarter century policing in Calgary, much of that time as a diversity liaison officer and training coordinator. After he retired, the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee asked him to tour the province and the rest of the country to analyze and assess the nascent field of investigating hate crimes. Mr. Stewart, who now consults for the Alberta Human Rights Commission, said officers routinely mislabel hate incidents because they don’t recognize the hate-related aspects. Sometimes, he added, the reasons for mislabelling are more selfish.

“One of the challenges in any department is as soon as you classify it as a hate crime it sends red flags to your supervisor and everyone, and it makes you do more work,” Mr. Stewart said.

He would like to see the Code amended to append hate motivation to a handful of common offences, such as uttering threats, mischief or assault. The hate-motivated versions of those offences would then become entirely separate crimes. He has argued that this new class of offences would clarify for rank-and-file officers what counts as a hate crime, which would make the crimes easier to investigate and report.

“Police are very good about following the rules and following legislation,” he said.

The National Council of Muslim Canadians and other community organizations that frequently reckon with hate have called on Ottawa to amend the Code in this fashion. But last summer the Department of Justice told The Globe that such changes weren’t necessary, because the current framework was functioning well – apart from a need for better online speech regulations. The RCMP have since said their new task force will study the idea of adding a new class of separate hate-motivated crimes.

Barbara Perry, director of Ontario Tech University’s centre on hate, bias and extremism, has mixed feelings about this solution.

She agrees that giving front-line officers a “box to tick” for hate crimes would be much clearer than the current system, which in most cases requires them to tack hate or bias onto standard offences. But, she said, during her nearly two decades of researching hate crimes in Canada she has always been worried that changing the law would cause investigators and prosecutors to ignore any new class of hate crimes in favour of charging suspects with core offences, which would be easier to prosecute.

That is what happens regularly in the United States, she said, where federal hate crimes are rarely prosecuted because proving the accused was motivated by bias can be difficult for local police.

Regardless of whether the law changes, experts and police leaders agree more needs to be done to train and deploy investigators capable of tackling hate crimes, which have spiked during the pandemic even as overall crime has dropped.

The Ottawa Police Service offers a unique case study in what happens when a force’s commitment to handling hate crimes ebbs.

Ottawa formed the country’s first hate crimes unit in 1993 to much fanfare. The force reported 176 hate crimes during the unit’s first year in operation. Nearly half of those were against Black people, a sergeant with the force told The Globe in February, 1994. During that inaugural year, the unit laid charges for 14 per cent of the offences it investigated as hate crimes. That rate is nearly double the 8 per cent Ottawa averaged over the period from 2013 to 2020.

The force’s priorities slowly shifted, and the hate crimes unit atrophied over time, as officers were shuffled into other sections. Some time around 2017, the team was quietly disbanded. The Ottawa Police Service has never explained exactly when or why this happened. In 2019, there was public outcry over the unit’s dissolution when a Black family living east of downtown found a racial slur spray painted on their garage.

Acting Sergeant Ali Toghrol – who had just solved another high-profile case involving a man who tried to burn down an Ottawa mosque – was tasked with trying to find justice for the family. When he was unable to track down the culprit, news coverage critical of the lack of a hate crimes unit prompted the force to reconstitute the squad with specialized funding.

“That specific incident was a turning point for us,” said Sgt. Toghrol, who now leads the unit, which he helped revive in 2020 with two constables. He’s currently investigating 17 hate-crime incidents related to the convoy protest that shut down central Ottawa in February.

Last month, the force released statistics for 2021 that showed it had investigated 260 hate crimes and charged suspects with 92 hate-related offences. That’s a charge rate of 35 per cent – more than triple the force’s average in the years covered by The Globe’s investigation.

Sgt. Toghrol credits this in part to the relationships his department has solidified with local prosecutors, whose involvement can help get charges approved and ensure that hate motivation becomes a factor at sentencing. The attempted mosque arson in 2019, he said, was the beginning of his long working relationship with local prosecutor Moiz Karimjee, who has become a specialist in hate crimes.

Like other heads of hate crimes units who have spoken with The Globe, Sgt. Toghrol said these productive bonds can only form if a police department and prosecution service have people dedicated to working hate crimes cases for extended periods of time.

Calgary’s new hate crimes unit has also just partnered with a local prosecutor, and units in Montreal and Peel – which have had two of the highest charge rates in the country in recent years – say they work hand in hand with designated prosecutors to secure charges in hate-related cases.

Another benefit of having certain investigators and Crown attorneys spend years developing their acumen in the hate crimes field is that they can use new approaches, such as helping divert suspects away from prison when they are very young or are grappling with mental-health or substance-use problems.

Ottawa Reverend Anthony Bailey works with local police to help de-radicalize hate crimes suspects, particularly younger ones. In two of three recent cases he has worked on, the suspects were steered away from their hatred and avoided criminal sentences.

Rev. Bailey, who watched his brother die 46 years ago after the pair were targeted in a hate-motivated stabbing on the streets of Montreal, said his involvement in the criminal process began in 2016, when his Parkdale United Church was defaced with hate symbols and racial epithets as part of an 18-year-old’s graffiti spree.

Instead of seeking a criminal penalty, he worked to educate the young man about the history of white supremacy and anti-Black racism in Canada. Eventually, the church offered a reference to get the man a job, which has since helped him turn his back on racist ideology and live a more fulfilling life.

This approach requires grace from the community that was targeted.

“Over time, he was quite surprised how much we not only cared about him, but how we were in it for the long haul,” Rev. Bailey said.

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