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Indigo at Bay and Bloor, in Toronto on Nov. 10, where protesters threw paint and put up posters targeting the chain's founder, an incident police allege was hate-motivated mischief targeting Jews.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Toronto police have laid mischief charges against 11 people they say were motivated by hate when an Indigo book store was defaced with red paint and fake posters accused the chain’s Jewish founder of financing genocide.

The charges are among those that led Chief Myron Demkiw to tell the Toronto Police Services Board Thursday that the rise in hate incidents in the past six weeks in the city has been “staggering.”

“Freedom of expression ends when it becomes criminal,” he said. “Hate will have no space here.”

Toronto police say they have seen 78 total hate incidents reported between Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Nov. 20, compared with 37 during that span last year.

The “deeply concerning” increase is largely being fuelled by 38 antisemitic acts (versus 13 during the same period last year) and 17 incidents targeting Palestinian, Muslim or Arab people, compared with a single case last year, according to the force. (Census data from last year shows that 3.6 per cent of Toronto’s population identified as Jewish, while nearly 10 per cent said they were Muslim.)

The Israel-Hamas war has motivated tens of thousands of Canadians to demonstrate across the country. Police in big cities have reported an uptick in hate incidents and ramped up patrols in affected communities.

Earlier this month, Montreal police announced that they were investigating shootings at two empty Jewish schools as well as Molotov cocktails being ignited at a synagogue and a local non-profit serving that community.

Over the past month in Toronto, 22 suspects have been arrested and 58 hate-related charges have been laid, police said in a news release. The most common charges include uttering threats, conspiracy to commit mischief and assault with a weapon.

Eleven of those people were charged in connection with the high-profile incident at Indigo’s Bay Street location on Nov. 10. Red paint was splashed across the front and fake posters depicted Indigo’s founder and chief executive officer Heather Reisman on a fake book cover entitled Funding Genocide.

The posters included a made-up quote attributed to her that read: “I’m happy to use the profits from your purchases to fund the Israeli military and bomb civilians,” according to images on social media.

Police said Thursday that they had arrested one person for hate-motivated mischief shortly after the incident and then, after executing search warrants on homes and cars, arrested 10 other people on Wednesday and charged them with mischief over $5,000 and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence.

A small group of protesters demonstrated outside the police station on Wednesday, where the accused were being processed, to wave signs and decry the “bogus charges.”

Among those charged is a public-school music teacher whom the Toronto District School Board confirmed to The Globe and Mail has been placed on “home assignment” pending the outcome of its own internal investigation.

Requests for comment from those who were charged, all Toronto residents, were not returned.

Spokespeople for Indigo did not respond to a request for comment on the charges.

Alejandro Paz, a Jewish faculty member at the University of Toronto and an expert on Israel in the Middle East, said Toronto police may have gone too far in designating those charged in the Indigo vandalism with being motivated by hate.

He said the protesters do not appear to be targeting the CEO for being Jewish, but for her work promoting Canadian support for the Israeli state, through activities such as co-founding the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Avital Borisovsky, spokeswoman for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, noted the ages of those arrested.

“The individuals arrested are not minors participating in some ill-advised prank. They’re mature adults,” said the statement, going on to note that the teacher is responsible for “educating the next generation of Canadians.”

Stephanie Sayer, a spokesperson for the Toronto police, said the vandalism was deemed a potential hate crime “because the victim was specifically targeted because they are [or are perceived to be] Jewish, which meets the criteria of an identifiable group.”

In response to increasing incidents of hate-motivated offences, Toronto Police said two weeks ago that it had nearly tripled the number of investigators in its hate-crimes unit by adding 14 more officers. The force has also assigned eight new special constables to fan out across districts to interview witnesses to alleged hate crimes and gather evidence, such as video footage

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.

Instead, Toronto police have charged these protesters with standard crimes (mischief and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, in this instance) and then appended hate motivation to the mischief offence. This means a judge will first have to decide if they are guilty and then whether they were motivated by hate, as police are alleging.

If this bias is proved, the judge will then weigh whether to hand out a heavier punishment.

With a report by The Canadian Press

Editor’s note: The photo caption above has been updated to clarify that police allege paint and posters were put on windows of the Indigo store in an incident of hate-motivated mischief targeting Jews.

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