It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that your friends, neighbors, neighbours’s friends, family, children, public servants, and ideological peers are above hate crimes, that they are morally superior human beings because they are generally well-liked and well-rounded individuals. Unfortunately, fantasies must come to an end.
Hate crimes shock communities because no one wants to believe that someone they know is capable of something as serious as a “hate crime.” Sure, there is the racist vandalism scrawled across a back alley and an offhand remark here and there, but a hate crime in their neighborhood? No way! Hate crimes are when someone is assaulted on the street, a burning cross is placed on their front lawn, or they find dead animals at their door with threatening notes attached. Yeah, those are all hate crimes, but the reality of hate crimes in Alberta is a lot less sensational and a lot more common than anyone would like to believe. Those bits of graffiti and offhand remarks may in fact be hate crimes right in your backyard and a charge will leave your community reeling.
In Dec 2016, two young women wearing hijabs were approached by an elderly Caucasian man at an Edmonton LRT station. The man pulled a piece of rope from his pocket, tied a noose, and told the girls “this is for you.” The suspect is described as A Caucasian male in his 60s with a thin build, glasses, and balding grey hair. Based on the description alone, many Edmonton grandfathers are potential suspects in this hate crime investigation. When you think of a grandfather, you probably do not think of hate crimes and death threats. When I remember my grandfather, I think of slippers, cinnamon rolls, and endless patience. Hardly the person who has the capacity to cause harm to another person… but therein lies the problem. A failure to acknowledge a person’s capacity to commit a hate crime perpetuates victim blaming, the dismissal of allegations, and the myth of “false reports.”
It is shocking when someone you thought could never commit a hate crime, such as an elder, does. It is even more shocking when the offender is a youth. What someone may consider innocent adolescent mischief can also be classified as a hate crime. On Feburary 9th, 2017 in Red Deer, Alberta, a young man wrote a hateful message in the snow outside of the town’s Islamic Centre. The content of the message was not released and no charges were laid but according to the Red Deer police, the incident would have been classified as “Mischief to religious property under the Criminal Code of Canada” as it “promotes hatred against any identifiable groups.” The offender was a youth and therefore his information was not released to the public and the incident was resolved using restorative justice. Had this person been of age and the Islamic Centre been much less forgiving, this could have escalated into a situation where a young member of the Red Deer community could have been charged with a hate crime.
Hate crime incidents involving youth offenders are particularly traumatizing to a community because it raises larger questions about the very nature of the community and the future of its children. Parents may find themselves asking whether this was something that was learned in the home, at school, or amongst peers? Where were the supports for this youth who needed an outlet for his anger and resentment? What programs were lacking in allowing this youth to believe that these actions were acceptable to the community? Youth offenders raise larger existential questions about identity, community priorities, and ideology and how hate crimes are perpetuated in Alberta.
In researching hate crimes and hate speech in Alberta, I have learned about the importance of expectations and community. When we set our expectations of people who commit hate crimes as hardened criminals and radicals, we must cope with the cognitive dissonance of recognizing and combatting hate crimes in our own communities. Using the toolkit created by the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee, you can address hate crimes and hate speech before it happens. This toolkit also helps you create a plan for if hate crimes do happen in your community. Set the expectation that it can happen and prepare accordingly and you are one step closer to a more inclusive and same community for everyone.