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Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw attends a press conference in Toronto on May 1, 2023.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Toronto police have taken the rare step of charging a protester with a hate crime after accusing a man of marching in the city’s downtown while waving the flag of a group Ottawa has declared a terrorist organization – with the force also saying it will now treat some demonstrations as crimes.

Chief Myron Demkiw announced the “unprecedented” arrest of the man, who was charged with public incitement of hatred, at a police board meeting Thursday during an update on the increasing number of antisemitic and other hate crimes occurring after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.

He added that his force is banning demonstrations from a highway overpass in the city that have gone on for weeks. And it will begin policing protests at certain locations – such as Jewish-owned restaurants – with a “criminal lens” that may result in more arrests aimed at stopping the intimidation of that community.

At a later news conference, Chief Demkiw said his officers have taken “great steps” to facilitate lawful and peaceful protests, but there are limits to freedom of speech “when things move to a criminal consideration.”

Police forces across the country have been grappling with where to draw the line between hate crimes and freedom of speech, as Canadians gather to protest against the conflict in the Middle East. Many forces in big cities have reported a spike in hate incidents, with Jewish people seeing the biggest jump in crimes targeting them.

At the board meeting, Chief Demkiw said the 41-year-old Toronto man was arrested near City Hall last Sunday and charged after officers observed him marching roughly five blocks with the flag.

The chief told the board that he would “very much like” to disclose which of the 77 terrorist groups listed by the federal government the man was allegedly supporting, but doing so would amplify their message.

“I will not be complicit in providing a platform to both acknowledge or promote the hateful ideology that accompanies terrorists or terrorist activity,” said Chief Demkiw, a day after meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss antisemitism in the city.

He said the force’s hate-crimes unit is working with the provincial Attorney-General’s office on the case, adding it requires a “very high threshold to lay charges.”

The incitement charge is one of a handful of actual hate crimes defined by the Criminal Code. The crimes advocate genocide, willfully promote hatred or antisemitism as well as mischief at religious or cultural sites.

Most hate-crimes cases in Canada involve police first charging someone with a core offence – not one of the hate crimes defined in the Criminal Code – and then prosecutors persuading a judge to include that hate or bias as an aggravating factor at sentencing.

In the Toronto case, Maged Sameh Hilal Al Khalaf is due in court next month.

The charge was one of 117 laid by the force since tensions in Canada’s biggest city have flared after the surprise Hamas raid of Israel and ensuing war in Gaza, he said. Since that day, Toronto has policed 308 demonstrations, with anywhere from several dozen people to more than 25,000.

While many of these protests have caused disruptions and concern from the public, some of them are becoming too volatile to police, Chief Demkiw said. He singled out the pro-Palestinian demonstrations occurring on the Avenue Road overpass of the 401 Highway as being a chokepoint where counterprotesters may seek to occupy the same space, which could lead to violence between the two camps.

He also said these protests are striking fear into the heart of one of the city’s nearby Jewish neighbourhoods, where the residents have “made it very, very clear – and properly clear – that they feel intimidated.”

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, vice-president for the GTA region at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said her group had been in talks with Chief Demkiw, arguing that protests related to the continuing war “target the Jewish community.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said that while police have a duty to protect community safety and address criminal behaviour, the current situation does not call for giving authorities unilateral power to ban any form of lawful gatherings.

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the association’s executive director and general counsel, said the overpass ban “does not seem justifiable without other, extreme circumstances.”

“We all need freedom of expression to protect our rights and freedoms, and the rights and freedoms of others in this country,” she said. Free speech is “an important weapon” for minority communities, including the Jewish community, she said.

Toronto police said Thursday that the number of hate-crimes files were up 42 per cent in 2023 from the previous year – 353 reports compared with 248. Since the start of the war on Oct. 7, police have made 54 arrests related to hate crimes, according to updated data released Thursday. Of those, the most common charges related to mischief, assault and uttering threats.

Antisemitic cases more than doubled last year to 132 files, making up more than a third of all cases in the city, police said. The number of hate crimes reported against Muslims nearly tripled from 12 in 2022 to 35 last year.

Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor and former chair of the RCMP’s civilian Management Advisory Board, said Thursday that the charge of publicly inciting hate means prosecutors must prove the actions of the accused on the weekend were likely to lead to the “breach of the peace,” a legal term he likened to a public commotion one step short of a riot.

“It has to be something more than causing someone distress,” said Prof. Roach, one of Canada’s foremost police critics.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Kent Roach as the chair of the RCMP’s civilian Management Advisory Board, a position he recently left.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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