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Montreal, October 1st, 2015 — The Montreal Police Service’s official reaction to a reported incident in which a pregnant Muslim woman was assaulted by two youths should raise concerns regarding the department’s capacity to address hate crime.

According to a media report, two 15- or 16-year-old adolescents in the East end of Montreal yanked the hijab from a Muslim woman, who fell in the street. In reaction to this incident, a Montreal Police Service (SPVM) spokesperson said that “usually, in a hate crime, there is an element of hate. It is possible that the youths did not understand the scope of their action,” (our translation). The media article also adds that according to the SPVM, the act did not have the appearance of a hate crime since no word of anger was reported.

The SPVM’s reaction is disturbing not only because of its lack of sensitivity, but also because it has the effect of trivializing an act of physical assault against a Muslim woman even before an investigation is complete.

Further, this reaction implies that hate crime (which involves violating the Criminal Code) or a hate incident (which involves a violation of civil rights protected by law, without necessarily implicating a Criminal Code violation), must necessarily involve hateful words. This interpretation goes squarely against the Canadian law on hate crime, especially since a great number of hate crimes do not involve words. A clear example is vandalism that wilfully damages or defaces the property of racial and religious minorities.

Finally, the SPVM’s official reaction risks legitimizing hate crimes committed by minors under the guise of “lack of understanding of the scope” of their acts.

Aside from the risk of giving a green light to minors to commit hate crimes with impunity, the SPVM’s position neglects the impact on the victim and the group to which she belongs. It also dismisses the fact that a hate crime is essentially an intentional act of discrimination and violation of civil rights prohibited by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. In discrimination matters, the law states that instead of intent, the focus should be on the effect of such an act on the victim.

“The SPVM position is astonishing, to say the least, and perhaps reflects the need to review the department’s competency in dealing with hate crimes and in responding to the needs of hate crime victims,” said CRARR’s Executive Director Fo Niemi.

“The Police Chief should quickly clarify its position,” he added. “In the present social climate, one must absolutely avoid all institutional action or reaction which lends support to racist, sexist and Islamophobic acts, be they physically or psychologically violent.”