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Hate crimes in Montreal expected to rise, but there are ways to ease tensions: expert

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An expert in violent extremism says she expects the number of hate crimes and hate-motivated incidents to rise as the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, but says there are ways to ease tensions to prevent further escalation.

Since the start of the war on Oct. 7, police in Montreal have received 134 reports of hate crimes and hate-motivated incidents across the city. Of those reports, 30 have come from Arab-Muslim communities, while 104 have come from Jewish communities, police said.

"Unfortunately, it's very sad, but I'm not surprised about the … increase of hate incidents and hate crimes towards any community that is identified or any person that is identified as being connected to the conflict," said Ghayda Hassan, a professor of clinical psychology at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and director of the Canada Practitioners Network for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence.

Hassan, who researches violence related to conflict, said based on scientific literature, as the war continues and people are exposed to images of death and destruction, the trauma can manifest itself into anger and, sometimes, the desire for revenge. She said such incidents will likely increase "if the conflict does not end."

"We have actually found very strong evidence on the fact that the more you are exposed to online hate, the more you are likely to propagate that hate online, but also to commit violence or hateful attacks offline. And we see that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or war is one of those conflicts that has historically, for more than 75 years now, generated a big amount of traumatic images of hateful discourses online," she said in an interview Thursday.

Ghayda Hassan is a professor of clinical psychology at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). (CTV News)

In recent weeks, police have been called to investigate a series of incidents targeting cultural communities. On Oct. 20, police received a call about hateful graffiti spray painted on the wall of a mosque in Montreal's Saint-Léonard borough. The words "KILL ALL MUSULMAN BASTARD (sic)" on the Badr Islamic Centre were quickly removed with the help of a man from the Jewish community — a positive message that he said he hoped would unite Montrealers.

Less than three weeks later, there were attempted arsons at a Montreal synagogue and a neighbouring Jewish organization.

On Nov. 9, police opened a hate crime investigation after gunshots were fired at two Jewish schools overnight in the Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (CDN-NDG) borough — the United Talmud Torahs of Montreal Inc. and the Yeshiva Gedola. 

Three days later, the Yeshiva Gedola was hit a second time by bullets. No injuries were reported in either incident.

Montreal police have been tracking the number of hate crimes and hate-motivated incidents since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. (CTV News)

On Thursday, the RCMP confirmed it is investigating Montreal imam Adil Charkaoui over a speech he delivered at a pro-Palestinian rally last month. During the rally, he allegedly prayed to God to "take care" of the Israelis. Premier François Legault called for the police to investigate, telling reporters, "It's clear that this is incitement to hatred, to violence."

Sgt. Charles Poirier told CTV News the RCMP's INSET (Integrated National Security Enforcement Team) is leading the investigation and that no arrest has been made.

STATS LIKELY UNDERESTIMATED, COMMUNITY LEADERS SAY

CTV News asked Montreal police if there have been any arrests or charges laid in connection with the 134 reports, but did not get a response before publication time.

Hassan says the numbers compiled by Montreal police are likely an underestimate since many incidents fueled by hate aren't reported to the authorities.

"Sometimes communities don't know where to go to report those hate crimes. They may not trust the police about reporting hate crimes or feel that even if they reported, nothing will be done to address the hate crime," she explained. "And they will also be afraid of reporting hate crimes because they are afraid of retaliation."

People take part in a Pro-Palestinian rally in Montreal, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, agrees that the numbers are likely much higher. Despite the statistics from Montreal police, hateful incidents targeting Muslims have skyrocketed, he said.

"Even after 9/11, we haven't seen what we are seeing now," he said in an interview last month.

Hank Topas, the cantor at Congregation Beth Tivkah inDollard-des-Ormeaux that was hit with molotov cocktails on Nov. 7, said the numbers are "probably shy of the truth."

"We have directed a number of students who have reached out to us who believe that they have been physically harassed, either in these demonstrations or elsewhere [to] take it to the police," said Topas, also B'nai Brith's Quebec regional director. 

"The police have been spectacular. They've been doing their job as best they can."

People attend a rally in support of Israel in Montreal, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

Last month, a Senate committee that studied Islamophobia in Canada suggested the creation of new criminal offences could help curb the spread of anti-Muslim hate. Sen. Mobina Jaffer told a news conference that she heard from communities across the country that "there should be specific Islamophobia or antisemitism crimes, that specifically deal with the issues that the Muslim or the Jewish communities are dealing with."

Hassan doesn't believe that would be the best approach. She said there should be a greater emphasis on preventing those forms of hate rather than "simply putting it in a judicial, legalistic framework."

EASING TENSIONS IN MONTREAL

Tensions remain high in the meantime in Montreal. On Thursday, pro-Israel demonstrators held a protest outside Concordia University, where students reported a rise in antisemitism on campus. Earlier in the day, about 100 pro-Palestinian protesters blocked access to the Jacques-Cartier bridge in Montreal as they waved Palestinian flags and held up signs that said "Free Palestine" and "Stop funding genocide."

Giving people a platform, such as demonstrations, to voice their frustration is needed, Hassan said, to support residents who are feeling "helpless and distressed." People's emotions can be assuaged by mobilizing positive actions to help ease tensions.

"For example, collecting, sending funds, collecting goods, anything that actually is of a humanitarian cause or humanitarian value, we can move them toward that, or even making social media campaigns calling for peace, calling for nuanced discourse," she said, adding that community leaders also have a role to play.

"Our leaders, community leaders and political leaders play a big role in calming the tensions — or on the contrary, in augmenting those tensions — so, I personally call on them today to help us maintain the social peace."

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