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Mourners pray as caskets draped in Canadian flags are lined up at a funeral for the four Muslim family members killed in a deadly vehicle attack, at the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario in London, Ont., on June 12.Nathan Denette/The Associated Press

Ottawa says existing Criminal Code offences are adequate to confront a recent surge in hate-fuelled incidents, but the federal government has recommitted to passing a law aimed at improving hate crime prosecutions.

After recent online summits on antisemitism and Islamophobia, the Department of Justice said this week that it wants to ensure hatred is better defined but otherwise has no plans to overhaul the way hate crimes are dealt with in the courts. Suspects are most often charged for a core crime and then prosecutors may argue hate motivation at the end of a trial to secure a heavier sentence.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) released a list of 35 federal recommendations including a call for Ottawa to introduce new provisions in the code to single out hate-motivated assault, murder, threats, and mischief that would include specific new penalties for each infraction. The existing code only singles out three hate propaganda offences and mischief relating to religious or cultural sites.

Nadia Hasan, chief operating officer of the NCCM, said doing this would create a much stronger deterrent for potential criminals as hate crimes have risen in recent years.

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“I’m not saying by any means that this alone would eradicate hate crimes for Canada, but it would send a strong message” that hate crimes deserve their own penalties, said Dr. Hasan. Her group also wants the code changed to offer restorative justice measures.

Dr. Hasan said creating a new class of hate crimes would also help victims get better service from front line investigators, some of whom are unfamiliar with Canada’s laws around hate-motivated attacks. The NCCM helped more than 70 hate crimes victims across the country seek justice last year and some of those victims have told her group that police in some jurisdictions routinely discouraged them from filing a hate-related complaint by telling them “it’s not worth it.”

“It happens often enough where we have to fight back and make sure the police are listening and really advocate for the victim,” said Dr. Hasan.

But Ian McLeod, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said in an e-mailed statement that Canadians are well served by a justice system that prosecutes the existing hate crime offences and then, with other hate-related crimes, has penalties amplified when motivation is factored in at sentencing. However, he said Ottawa is committed to updating the Criminal Code through Bill C-36 to define hate speech ascontent that expresses detestation or vilification of a person or group,” including over the Internet, where these comments are common.

Bill C-36, which targeted public hate speech by individuals, did not pass into law after being introduced by the Liberal government at the end of the parliamentary session. If an election is called this summer, as is widely expected, the legislation will no longer move forward.

Mr. McLeod’s statement said Ottawa is also tackling online hate through a proposal to create a new regime to police hateful content on social media sites.

In June, MPs unanimously voted to call the emergency Islamophobia conference following the murder of three generations of a London, Ont., Muslim family by a driver now facing terrorism charges, with the government also announcing the summit on antisemitism.

Statistics Canada also recently released its annual report on crime data showing 2020 brought a 10 per cent overall decrease in cases reported by police across the country, but departments reported a record 2,669 hate crimes cases – a 37 per cent spike from the year prior. Police and criminologists acknowledge hate crimes in general go vastly unreported.

Michael Mostyn, chief executive officer of B’nai Brith Canada, said his organization would rather see the current laws enforced “more diligently” before any new amendments are legislated.

“One of the serious frustrations from a group like B’nai Brith, which is dealing with the victims of hate crimes on a daily basis, is that we don’t see so many of these prosecutions across the country,” he said.

Mohammed Hashim, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, a Crown corporation, said many different solutions are needed as Canada’s entire criminal justice system is ill-suited to address the scourge of hate crimes.

“It starts from underreporting; to not having confidence in the police dealing with hate crimes adequately; to the number of charges that are laid, or the lack thereof,” he said.

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