Canadians are in denial about hate crimes, advocates said Tuesday, as Statistics Canada released new figures documenting a spike in police-reported incidents in 2015.
The agency reported crimes motivated by hate against the Muslim population rose by 61 per cent that year, with 159 incidents compared with 99 in 2014.
It said police documented 1,362 criminal incidents inspired by hate —an increase of five per cent, or 67 more incidents, over the previous year.
"The number of hate crimes presented in this release likely undercounts the true extent of hate crime in Canada, as not all crimes are reported to police," Statistics Canada said.
The agency did say in 2015 that police services increased outreach to ethnic groups and, in addition, the National Council of Canadian Muslims tried to encourage reporting of hate crimes to police.
A spokesperson for the organization, Amira Elghawaby, said Tuesday that former prime minister Stephen Harper's decision to focus on the use of face coverings at citizenship ceremonies during the 2015 election campaign contributed to discrimination against Muslim women.
"You can almost immediately see the moment that Mr. Harper started talking about the face veil, we immediately started getting reports of women being harassed in Canada," she said during a news conference on Parliament Hill.
"We can't make a direct link per se but ... certainly it was a factor."
Of the hate crimes reported to police, 48 per cent were motivated by hatred of a race or ethnicity, 35 per cent were motivated by hatred of a religion and 11 per cent targeted sexual orientation.
Speaking outside the House of Commons on Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called the trend in the numbers "deeply troublesome."
"We all need to work very hard to reinforce the generous, inclusive, accommodating nature of the country that has made us the finest example of pluralism that the world has ever known," he said.
Part of this work will involve police services across Canada to reporting annually on hate crimes and incidents, said Elghawaby.
"Toronto police and Hamilton are the only police services that we are aware of that do that," she said. "Everybody else is only reporting to Stats Canada ... that's why we are here talking about 2015 numbers."
Canadians need to wake up to the issue, added Chelby Daigle, an author who has documented anti-black racism in Ottawa.
"I think we are in denial," she said. "We all have to start owning this and I think when we do that, we'll be able to push institutions like police and ... government to be more accountable."
Statistics Canada says eight of 10 provinces reported an increase in the number of police-reported hate crimes from 2014 to 2015.
"Whether it is hate-filled speech or hate-filled actions, it has no place in our society," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
The increase was most pronounced in Alberta, where police reported 193 hate crimes compared with 139 the year before, a rise driven by a higher number of crimes motivated by hatred against the Muslim population, Arab or West Asian populations, black populations and the Jewish population.
The agency reported Alberta saw an overall increase in crime in 2015; police officers from the province have previously said they believe the increase in crime overall is linked to the province's economic downturn.
Statistics Canada found the highest rate of police-reported hate crime among metropolitan areas was in Thunder Bay, Ont., adding this was mostly due to 10 incidents against aboriginal populations that accounted for 29 per cent of anti-aboriginal hate crimes reported in 2015.
Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation Anna Betty Achneepineskum, who has lived in Thunder Bay since 1988, suspects rates are even higher in the city, saying mistrust of police contributes to a reluctance to report incidents.
"They're afraid that their families might be targeted afterward," she said in an interview. "They don't have confidence that the police force will either acknowledge the assault or the treat."
Many indigenous children end up in Thunder Bay because they have no choice but to leave their communities to pursue an education, Achneepineskum said.
"They're more vulnerable," she said. "They're out of the care of their parents."