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Vancouver leaders condemn pepper-spray attack on refugees

Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan during an interview November 18, 2015 at DND Headquarters in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Political and community leaders say the pepper spraying of Syrian refugees in Vancouver is an isolated incident that does not reflect Canadian values.

"This is not the Canadian way," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in an interview Sunday.

Over the weekend, Mr. Sajjan visited a church, a Sikh temple and a mosque, where members at each site were preparing to help settle the new arrivals into the Vancouver region. "The true Canadian way is when we welcome other human beings who are going to make a wonderful living in Canada, and I'm proud to be part of that. The majority of Canadians think the same way," he said.

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The Liberal MP made the comments outside his constituency office in Vancouver South, the riding next to Vancouver Kingsway, where the pepper spraying occurred.

Mr. Sajjan said he is confident that Vancouver police officers will make progress in their investigation into the incident on Friday night, when a group of about 100 community volunteers and Syrian refugees gathered for a potluck supper on the second floor of the Muslim Association of Canada Centre on Kingsway Avenue, on Vancouver's east side.

Vancouver police Chief Adam Palmer said a man riding a bicycle is responsible for spraying part of the crowd that assembled outside the centre after the supper event ended.

Paramedics and firefighters treated about 15 people. The group included Vancouver residents who had gathered to welcome the Syrian refugees. A busload of refugees were in attendance, and the crowd had a mix of men, women and children, Chief Palmer said.

He said that as part of the investigation into the "hate-motivated crime," police are searching for video surveillance in the area to find clues into the appearance of the man who wore a white or grey hooded sweatshirt.

Tima Kurdi – the aunt of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned in September while fleeing Syria with his family – says the support that Canadians have shown to refugees is "unbelievable" and they shouldn't be blamed for Friday night's incident.

"To be honest, Canadian people would not do this, the majority of them," Ms. Kurdi said. "They are big supporters to the refugees."

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Mohammad Bajammal, a co-ordinator with the Muslim Food Bank and Community Services Society, stood inside the Muslim centre on Sunday. He looked through the second-storey window and pointed outside at the sidewalk where refugees waited for a school bus shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Friday. The bus had dropped them off for the event designed to celebrate their arrival in Canada.

A promotional poster remained on the wall inside the centre, touting, "Welcome Night to welcome Syrian families to the Muslim community." Mr. Bajammal said Canadians from all walks of life have been generous, heeding the call for financial donations and requests for volunteers.

"We have been helping with food and clothing," Mr. Bajammal said. "The Canadian community is supportive and welcomes new immigrants. You have crazy people everywhere. It was one person biking and pepper spraying. It does not represent the feelings of the community and you cannot take it out of proportion. This is negative and we're trying to focus on the positive things that we're doing."

Political leaders expressed outrage. "I condemn the attack on Syrian refugees in Vancouver. This isn't who we are – and doesn't reflect the warm welcome Canadians have offered," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter on Saturday. Immigration Minister John McCallum said he awaits police "bringing the perpetrator to justice."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark tweeted that Friday night's "attack on refugees is intolerable, regardless of motivation. Please join me in condemning it, and welcoming new Canadians."

Don Davies, the NDP MP who attended the potluck in his Vancouver Kingsway riding, said he is appalled by the attack. "This crime, no matter what the motivation, is one of violence and hate. It has no place in our community or country," he said in a statement.

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Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson tweeted that the "incident was a disgusting display of hate – and Vancouver won't stand for it."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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