A 17-year-old has been charged with terrorism in connection with the February slaying of a woman at an erotic massage parlour in Toronto – a killing that police now allege was motivated by the “incel” ideology, which is rooted in the hatred of women.
The charges, announced Tuesday by Toronto Police and the RCMP, mark the first time police in Canada have formally acknowledged an alleged misogynistic crime as terrorism – a positive signal for advocates who have long been calling for the recognition of violence against women as terrorism
“This is monumental in Canadian history,” said Nneka MacGregor, executive director of the Women’s Centre for Social Justice in Toronto. “I’m hopeful that it’s a wake-up call. … I’m hoping that this move will help society at large understand what those of us in in the [violence against women] sector have seen, and have been calling for, for decades.”
On a Monday afternoon in February, police were called to the Crown Spa in the north end of Toronto over reports of a stabbing. When they arrived, officers discovered a 17-year-old male youth and a 30-year-old woman outside the massage parlour, both of whom were suffering from multiple stab wounds. Inside, they found a woman – later identified as Ashley Noell Arzaga, 24 – who was pronounced dead at the scene. The 17-year-old (who cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act) was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder.
Shortly after the incident occurred, investigators say they uncovered evidence that the case had been allegedly inspired by the “incel” movement – an online women-hating collective of “involuntarily celibate” men who are frustrated by their lack of success sexually attracting women.
The ultimate targets of the incels’ anger are known as “Chads” and “Staceys,” sexually active men and women who the incels believe have been rewarded by unfair social standards. The incels feel that they – the “beta males” – have been punished by those same societal standards.
The deadly Toronto van attack in 2018 brought the incel movement into the public eye in Canada.
Because federal authorities lay the majority of terrorism charges in Canada, Toronto Police detectives contacted the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, which worked with federal and provincial prosecutors to add the terrorism charges.
The 17-year-old appeared in court Tuesday morning, where his charges were upgraded to first-degree murder with terrorist activity and attempted murder with terrorist activity.
Michael Nesbitt, a criminal law professor at the University of Calgary, said the case will be a legal watershed for the Anti-Terrorism Act that Canada passed in 2001.
Over the past two decades, Canada has seen roughly 60 terrorism charges laid. Almost all of those have been against extremists inspired by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
The Crown’s decision to lay terrorism against an alleged follower of the incel movement is highly significant, Prof. Nesbitt said – and may be a signal that Canadian prosecutors are gearing up to pursue a wider array of suspects as criminal terrorists.
“It’s a really big deal,” he said.
Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University and one of Canada’s leading scholars on terrorism, agreed that the new charges are a legal landmark.
Police and prosecutors in Canada “are more and more realizing that seeing the full-threat picture is important,” he said
In the past, he said, the argument against laying terrorism charges in murder cases has been that they are not worth the extra burden in court when the road to conviction is simpler on murder charges alone.
"The challenge still exists, in terms of courts. But maybe one of the shifts that has happened is that politically speaking they want to make a more consistent argument to the public about what they consider to be terrorism."
As far as Prof. Amarasingam knows, this is the first criminal case globally to have brought terrorism charges in an alleged incel case.
“I think there have only been ... maybe seven attacks total globally from the incel community," he said. "I don’t think any of them other than this one has been charged with terrorism.”
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said she was surprised by the news given how little attention this particular case seemed to have gotten, but she called it a “welcome development.”
“I think it’s a response to public pressure and stakeholder pressure to expand the understanding or the interpretation of what constitutes terrorism in this country specifically,” Prof. Perry said.
Legal scholar Amanda Dale, who is a member of an expert advisory panel with the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, said that while she appreciates the rhetorical value of recognizing misogyny as terrorism, she is uncomfortable with the nature of terrorism charges to begin with.
“The whole concept of terrorism is itself problematic in my view, because it's legally subject to a great deal of interpretation,” Dr. Dale said. “[It’s a charge that] was never legally airtight, and was really politically defined.”
She is also concerned that by classifying a particular form of public violence against women as terrorism, it suggests there is a “supreme” form of violence, “and all the other forms of violence that are connected to it start to look like they're just garden variety, so not worth our attention.”
“I think it is important to understand all forms of violence against women in a continuum,” she said.
Prof. Perry, on the other hand, said she believes this case “raises the bar in terms of acknowledging violence against women as this serious. And I don’t think that means all other cases need to rise to the same level in order to be taken seriously.”
University of Ottawa law professor Elizabeth Sheehy agrees.
“I think that it’s a positive signal. I think it is a recognition that virulent misogyny is a form of terrorism,” she said. “I think it is important for us to call it terrorism and to find the mechanisms to respond to it appropriately. … It requires strong denunciation, it requires action.”
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