An attack on an 11-year-old girl wearing a hijab – a case that garnered international attention, eliciting responses from the Toronto mayor, the Premier of Ontario and even the Prime Minister – did not happen, Toronto police now say.
Upon her arrival at school in an east-end neighbourhood of Toronto last Friday, the girl told her principal that a man had come up behind her while she was walking with her younger brother and that he had yanked down the hood of her winter coat and used scissors to slice through her light blue hijab. The girl's mother was called. Police were called. A press conference was held and the story quickly blew up on social media.
But on Monday, after a "detailed investigation," Toronto Police said they have determined that the alleged assault – one that was being investigated as a hate crime – simply "did not happen."
Spokesperson Mark Pugash declined to offer any further details about what led investigators to conclude the story was false, but stressed that "it is not a conclusion we came to lightly."
At the press conference at her school on the day of the alleged attack, the Grade 6 student walked reporters through the incident in vivid detail. She said she was scared and confused – and that the man had smiled at her before running away. Her mother, through tears, said that this wasn't the Canada she is proud to call home.
A police officer at the press conference confirmed that the girl's hijab had been cut about 30 centimetres, up from the bottom. The girl's hair was not cut, the officer said, and she was not injured.
A specific description of the perpetrator – an Asian man in his 20s with a mustache, glasses and a hoodie – was provided to the public by police.
"My heart goes out to the young girl who was attacked, seemingly for her religion," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that day in London, Ont. "I can't imagine how afraid she must have been. I want her and her family and her friends and community to know that that is not what Canada is. That is not who Canadians are."
Investigators asked businesses and drivers in the area to check their security cameras and dash cams for footage of a man loitering in the area prior to the alleged assault. It is unclear what any video police did obtain showed – or didn't show.
"What I can tell you is that we took [the allegations] extremely seriously," Mr. Pugash said. "We had investigators working hard on it. They gathered evidence, they spoke to people, they interviewed people, and that's the conclusion they came to."
Police do not anticipate any charges being laid.
But the backlash on social media to Monday's announcement has been swift.
Jeewan Chanicka, superintendent of equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression for the Toronto District School Board, posted on his personal Facebook the responses to the police announcement have been "heartbreaking."
"A child says something and turns out it wasn't true. It has huge implication. First – she's 11. I hope she's surrounded by adults who help her understand but also figure out what got her to this point and the support she needs. The response to this has been heart-breaking," Mr. Chanicka wrote. "She's a child – ADULTS leave her alone to figure out what she has to learn and get the support she needs."
The TDSB declined to comment Monday, saying only that they are "very thankful that this assault did not happen."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in her own statement, thanked the Toronto Police Service for its investigation and said that she is "thankful and relieved that this assault did not take place."
Toronto Mayor John Tory stressed that he will always speak out when there are reports or allegations of hate or intolerance in the city, but noted he is glad that this event did not happen.
"We all must remain vigilant in the fight against hate, racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to make sure our city remains an inclusive place," he added.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims – who had called the alleged assault a "craven attack" – issued a statement Monday noting that it is relieved but unsettled by news that the claim was false.
"While we are relieved that this child was not a victim of a hate crime, the false nature of the claim is unsettling and points to the need for greater education about the seriousness of making false or inaccurate reports to the police, as such reports will not only affect the person making them, but may also affect persons who are in fact targeted by Islamophobic and hateful acts," NCCM executive director Ihsaan Gardee said.
"At this time, we reiterate our support for the investigative process of law enforcement, and we are pleased to note that police investigated this claim swiftly and seriously. This is particularly important in light of the heightened anxieties being felt within many Muslim communities in the lead-up to the first anniversary of the Quebec mosque massacre, where six worshipers were killed and many injured during evening prayers."
The NCCM has asked Mr. Trudeau to designate Jan. 29, the first anniversary of last year's Quebec City mosque shooting, as a national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia.
Bernie Farber, former executive director of the Mosaic Institute, a think tank that promotes diversity, and former chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the fact that these allegations were false "does not in any way diminish the fact that Islamophobia is rampant in this country and we need to find a way to stop it."
The Prime Minister's Office said Monday that "we have seen an unfortunate pattern of increased hate crimes in past months directed toward religious minorities, particularity toward women. We need to take this issue extremely seriously as this pattern is a warning sign of increased intolerance."
"We are a country that defends freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and people's rights to go to school without being fearful or harassed," the PMO statement said. "This is fundamental to who we are. We would direct all the questions on the investigation to the Toronto Police Service. We are thankful and relieved that this incident did not take place."