The ‘Indigo 11’: Group of ‘hate-motivated’ vandals or unconnected activists?

Indigo vandalism
Click to play video: 'Indigo bookstore vandalized with red paint, posters accusing Jewish founder of ‘funding genocide’'
Indigo bookstore vandalized with red paint, posters accusing Jewish founder of ‘funding genocide’
An Indigo store in downtown Toronto was vandalized on Friday with red paint and posters plastered onto its windows accusing the company’s founder of 'funding genocide.' The incident comes amid tensions surrounding Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. – Nov 10, 2023

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article said that Starbucks was Jewish-owned. This has been clarified — the company’s former CEO was Jewish and the company has been targeted by boycotters and vandals, but it is not currently Jewish-owned.

Lesley Wood is an associate professor at York University. Ian Doty is a music teacher at a public school in Scarborough. Suzanne Narain is a community activist in North York. Mac Scott is an immigration consultant.

At first glance, they’re a disparate bunch of people from different walks of Toronto life. But each of them has one thing in common: they’re accused of defacing a prominent Toronto bookstore in what police have labelled a “suspected hate-motivated offence.”

In total, 11 people face criminal charges in relation to the Nov. 10, 2023, vandalism of an Indigo bookstore in downtown Toronto, in which red paint was splashed across the storefront and posters of Jewish CEO Heather Reisman’s face, above the caption “funding genocide,” were glued to the windows.

Jewish advocacy groups labelled the act antisemitic, as the Israel-Hamas conflict fuelled a spike in hate crimes across the city, and country. The group’s supporters vehemently deny that label.

But the incident has become a flashpoint for local tensions amid the conflict — as the line between hate crime and legitimate protest becomes harder to define.

An Indigo bookstore in downtown Toronto was vandalized in early November with statements accusing its founder, Heather Reisman, of ‘funding genocide.’. Global News

Last month, the RCMP charged an Ottawa youth with terrorism for allegedly plotting an attack against the Jewish community. In Toronto, city councillor James Pasternak last week decried an “escalation of lawlessness in Toronto” after a Jewish-owned delicatessen was targeted by arson and graffiti.


Between Oct. 7 and Dec. 17, 2023, according to Toronto police, there were 98 hate crimes reported in the city, compared with 48 the year before. More than half of the 98 were antisemitic.

But supporters of the so-called “Indigo 11” say the bookstore vandalism is a form of protest against Reisman’s Israel-focused philanthropy, not Judaism — and should not be criminalized.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau calls antisemitism rise ‘terrifying’ after teen terror charges'
Trudeau calls antisemitism rise ‘terrifying’ after teen terror charges

Police have not charged the 11 with a hate crime. Nonetheless, the fallout was swift. At least five have been suspended from their jobs. One of their charges carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

On Monday, four of the accused made their first court appearance. Two were represented by the same lawyer, two represented themselves.

But who exactly is this group of ragtag Torontonians?

A Global News investigation has found that many are longtime activists for various causes. At least half of them have been affiliated with a once-prominent Toronto migrant rights group.

“A lot of our circles are folks who are deeply disturbed with what’s happening in the world,” says lawyer Swathi Sekhar, a longtime collaborator with Scott.

“I personally believe that speaking up about this, so people know what’s happening, is a moral obligation … and instead it’s been criminalized.”

But what binds the “Indigo 11” is a little more unclear. Because several of them apparently don’t know each other at all.

“It’s a pretty random group of people. The common thread for most of them is migrant justice work and social justice work, but not all of them,” says a source, who knows several of those arrested and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“None of us can figure out the logic. … Why this 11?”

'Some of them have never met before'

On the morning of Nov. 10, pictures of the vandalism of the Indigo bookstore at the corner of Bay and Bloor streets in downtown Toronto began circulating on social media.

Michael Levitt, the president and CEO of Jewish rights group Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, labelled it an “absolutely appalling antisemitic attack.”

Two weeks later, Toronto police announced 11 arrests in relation to the incident — one made on Nov. 14 and a further 10 on Nov. 22. Each faces charges of mischief over $5,000 and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence. None of the charges have been tested in court.

Police say the suspects acted as a group. But sources say some of them are completely unknown to one another.

“It’s a bizarre grab-bag of people. … Some of them have never met before,” said a source who knows several of the accused, and who did not want to be named due to the upcoming court cases.

Some are also “peripheral” in social activism, he said, or their partner is involved. He would not say how many people were involved in the actual defacement of the store.


Global News confirmed the identities of most of the 11, via friends or colleagues. Many did not want to be named for fear of backlash.

Scroll through the gallery below for information on the 11:

While many of the group appear to have crossed paths over the years, Global News could find no overt connection between all 11. But at least six of them have been involved with the advocacy group No One Is Illegal Toronto.

The group’s website is now defunct, but internet archives show that it has previously described itself as a “grassroots migrant justice organization” that “fight(s) for the freedom to move, return and stay.”

Its Vancouver chapter lists the “occupation of Palestine” as one of its “critical issues.”

Mercedes Lee appeared as a representative for the group on a panel discussion five years ago. Karl Gardner has spoken in media articles about his involvement. Nisha Toomey lists her membership in the group on her curriculum vitae, as does Stuart Schussler, while Scott lists it on his work bio. Sharmeen Khan is described online as an organizer with No One is Illegal and is the administrator of its Facebook page.

Scott and Wood, along with Gardner, Khan and Toomey, have also contributed to Upping the Anti, a political organizing publication that describes itself as a “radical journey of theory and action.” The magazine did not respond to requests for comment.

On Nov. 10, No One is Illegal Toronto’s Instagram page posted a series of pictures of the store swathed in posters and paint, saying: “Your next Book Club selection? Heather’s Pick: Genocide.”

Requests for comment to the group were not answered.

None of the 11 accused returned requests for comment.

'There's some irony at work here'

On a brisk morning in late November, a crowd assembled outside the same Indigo bookstore. Many held copies of the posters that were glued to the windows on Nov. 10. Organized by the Jews Say No To Genocide coalition, supporters demanded police drop charges against the 11. A small group of counter-protesters held an Israeli flag and intermittently shouted “go to jail,” “bulls–t” and “left-wing Jews hate Jews.” About 30 police officers looked on from the periphery.

It was the first time one of the 11 spoke publicly.

“As someone who grew up proud but private about their Jewishness, to be labelled an antisemite is a horrible thing,” Wood, who called in to read a statement, told the crowd.

Supporters of the ‘Indigo 11’ staged a protest in front of the bookstore that was defaced, demanding police drop charges against the group. Ashleigh Stewart

Far from the charges being dropped, later that day, Toronto police announced additional criminal charges against the 11, of criminal harassment, after police allege they “engaged in threatening conduct that caused a person to reasonably fear for their personal safety.” That charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Supporters are aghast at the idea. Many are longtime activists, friends and supporters say, and were simply standing up for a cause — the same as they’ve always done.

“(Wood is) somebody who’s very committed to social justice and to making the world a better place,” says Irina Ceric, assistant professor at the University of Windsor’s faculty of law, who has known Wood for 30 years.

“There’s some irony at work here with her facing these charges. It pains her that this is distracting from the work she wants to do with her students but also from what’s happening in Gaza.”

Wood chaired York University’s sociology department from 2017 to 2021 and is the author of several books, including Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing (2014) and Direct Action, Deliberation and Diffusion: Collective Action After the WTO Protests in Seattle (2012).

Protestors accuse Indigo CEO Heather Reisman of ‘funding genocide.’. Ashleigh Stewart

Luin Goldring, a professor at York’s department of sociology, says Wood is “highly respected by both faculty and students.”

“(As department chair) she was really able to foster a space where people could talk to each other, even if they don’t agree with each other, and that is a skill that probably comes from her organizing,” she says.

York University has placed the “community members” arrested for the store’s defacement on non-disciplinary leave, spokesperson Yanni Dagonas confirmed. He would not refer to them by name and declined to answer further questions.

At least two more of the accused have also been suspended. Gardner has been placed on “administrative leave,” a University of Toronto spokesperson confirmed, but would not say for how long. TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said Doty was on “home assignment,” pending the outcome of an investigation.

A small counter-protest formed outside Indigo as Toronto police looked on. Ashleigh Stewart

The department of sociology at York recently passed a resolution calling on the university to reinstate Wood, along with at least two others, department chair Mark Thomas says, but York did not “respond in a positive way.”

According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, academic staff charged with a criminal offence, but not incarcerated, can continue to carry out their position. Suspension is justified “where their presence on campus poses a clear, serious and imminent danger to any member of the academic institution.”

Dagonas told Global News the staff were placed on leave “out of concern for the safety of our community,” but would not say what that danger was.

'A crime of conscience'

As well as Wood, other members of the “Indigo 11” are longtime activists, supporters say.


Wood’s partner, Scott, became an activist at the age of 21, and in 1997, he began working in immigration as a volunteer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, according to Carranza LLP’s website.

Immigration and refugee lawyer Swathi Sekhar, who met Scott when she was a law student and calls him her “mentor,” says Scott’s work has “changed immigration detention (in Canada) today.”

“Mac would always take cases that are so-called lost causes … the most vulnerable people who had no options and had no support.

“Without Mac, those cases would not have gone forward.”

Click to play video: 'Toronto police say they have made arrests in 1 of 78 hate-motivated crimes they’ve investigated since Oct. 7'
Toronto police say they have made arrests in 1 of 78 hate-motivated crimes they’ve investigated since Oct. 7

Along with No One is Illegal, Scott was involved in the case of Alvin Brown, a mentally ill Jamaican man who spent five years in maximum-security immigration custody over criminal convictions for drug and weapons offences, before being deported in 2016. Sekhar says Scott represented Brown at many of his detention reviews, often pro-bono.

Labelling the arrests of the 11 a “crime of conscience,” Sekhar says Scott will be “very, very sad and hurt” at being labelled antisemitic.

Gardner’s postdoctoral supervisor, U of T assistant professor of Indigenous policies Uahikea Maile, told Global News that Gardner is “a principled and vocal advocate for justice, contributing to important scholarship and advocacy in the city over the past decade.”

“I know Dr. Gardner as a person who is deeply committed to justice. A person who has spent his entire life supporting communities facing human rights violations,” Maile said.

Gardner, along with Toomey, Cheng and Schussler, had their first court appearances on Monday. Toomey and Cheng were represented by a lawyer and had their case adjourned until April 2. Schussler and Gardner opted to be self-represented and had their cases adjourned until Feb. 20.

Reisman donated $30 million in 2022

Supporters have also criticized the way the arrests took place. A source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says police conducted “no-knock raids,” “ransacked” several houses and broke down doors in the arrests of the 11.

In one case, police arrested a couple in front of their young children, the source said. Another same-sex couple had “condescending” comments made to them by police, they said, and in another case, police handcuffed the older parents of the accused and “made them stand in the hallway” and “shouted at them,” because they did not speak English.

Toronto police declined to comment on the arrests, saying the investigation was ongoing.

“All of these people would have very happily gone to the station if they were called at 9 a.m.,” the source said.

“There’s not a cell of antisemitism (in them). If there was a fascist movement in Canada, they would be on the front lines defending these people.”

Click to play video: 'Heather Reisman returning to Indigo following abrupt exit of former CEO'
Heather Reisman returning to Indigo following abrupt exit of former CEO

It’s the same stance many of the group’s supporters have taken — that the protest was a statement against Reisman’s HESEG Foundation, which provides tuition to former lone soldiers who serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and was therefore not hate-motivated.

Reisman, and her husband, Gerald Schwartz, donate millions each year to Jewish organizations. But they also donate to non-Jewish organizations.

In 2022, the Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman Foundation donated almost $30 million to a wide variety of donees – from the Sinai Health System Foundation ($1.5 million) to the Governing Council of the University of Toronto ($5.15 million) to the United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto ($4.9 million). The largest donation, however, was to the HESEG Foundation ($7.1 million).


Reisman’s funding of HESEG has been the target of protests for over a decade.

In December, another was staged outside a store in Burnaby, B.C. Protesters lay down in front of the store, swathed in red-stained white sheets.

Burnaby RCMP say there were no arrests in relation to the protest and the hate crime unit was not involved.

Indigo, and Reisman, did not respond to requests for comment.

'I made my point'

Jewish-owned businesses have become common targets for protests and boycotts since Oct. 7.

Starbucks has also been targeted by boycotters and vandals. In mid-November, Skigh Johnson, 25, was charged with mischief interfering with the enjoyment of property in relation to the vandalism of a Starbucks in north Toronto. The coffee shop was defaced with graffiti and posters that read: “blood on your hands,” “stop killing babies” and “free Palestine.” Police did not charge Johnson with a hate crime.

Speaking to Global News, Johnson remains unrepentant for the act, which she deems “not illegal.”

When asked why she chose Starbucks, she said: “because it funds Israel’s weapons that are contributing to the genocide.”

Click to play video: 'Starbucks in Forest Hill targeted with antisemitic graffiti'
Starbucks in Forest Hill targeted with antisemitic graffiti

Starbucks has previously denied that neither it, nor its Jewish former CEO Howard Schultz, provides financial support to the Israeli government in any way.

The company has, however, recently been boycotted for suing its union, Starbucks Workers United, after the labour body posted a since-deleted message on X, saying, “Solidarity with Palestine!” Starbucks is suing the union for trademark infringement for the union’s use of a logo it says is similar to the Starbucks logo and for using the phrase “Starbucks Workers United.”

But Johnson made no mention of that in her justification of the vandalism. Instead, she said that she endured bullying growing up as an African American in the Forest Hill area, where she lives in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, and that her best friend is Palestinian.

“When I was doing it, a Jewish person drove up and said, ‘What do you think this is going to do?’ and I said, ‘I actually don’t know but let’s wait and see.’

“I made my point. … People can think you’re doing this for attention. But you gave me the attention so I’m going to use it.”

But for many, the targeting of businesses is about more than just attention.

Click to play video: 'Police investigate suspected hate-motivated arson at Jewish-owned deli'
Police investigate suspected hate-motivated arson at Jewish-owned deli

“When we’re targeting Jewish people, Jewish-owned businesses and homes in order to hold people collectively accountable for Israel’s actions, that is antisemitism,” says Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“The vast majority of Jews have some sort of connection with Israel, but that doesn’t make them personally responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.”

Spitalnick says the more normalized these acts become, the “more dangerous and violent the targeting becomes.”

“It starts with vandalizing a business and moves into menorah lightings being cancelled … and then into the violent targeting of Jews.”


Others disagree, saying this definition of antisemitism is “misleading” and is often used to insulate the Israeli government from criticism.

“You’re basically claiming that to demonstrate at all, to be for a ceasefire at all, is antisemitism — which is really pushing it,” says Sheryl Nestel, a member of the Jewish Faculty Network’s steering committee.

Nestel believes the police response to the Indigo defacement was “way out of proportion and absolutely shocking.”

“The only way you can justify calling it hate speech … is that it targeted a Jewish person,” Nestel says.

“Heather Reisman is not just any random Jew. She is someone who actively supports the policies of the Israeli government and uses the proceeds of her businesses to do so.”

A 'hostile environment for Jews'

On a Tuesday afternoon in late November, a crowd assembled in the Vari Hall Rotunda at York University for a “walkout,” demanding the university reinstate its members.

Pro-Palestinian chants and flags filled the room. One lone Israeli flag hung from the second-floor gallery.

A professor in a grey suit wandered in, scanned the crowd, and remarked to a colleague: “What? This is going to change the world?”

Those two colleagues are both Jewish. But they hold different opinions about what that means.

A group of York University faculty members, staff and students participated in a walkout Tuesday afternoon in protest of suspensions of three employees who were charged for mischief of a Toronto Indigo bookstore. Shallima Maharaj / Global News

In a campus cafe, one of them, Jewish studies Prof. Randal Schnoor, told Global News he is trying to “help improve what’s happening on campus and to promote intercultural understanding.” He previously ran a course called “antisemitism and Islamophobia in Canada.”

York has become a flashpoint for local tensions in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The school has a large Jewish population — about 3,500, according to Hillel Ontario. In late October, the university threatened to withdraw recognition from three major student unions after they made a public statement calling Hamas’s attacks on Israel “justified and necessary.”

At the end of the Nov. 28 walkout, Global News observed a protester waving a $100 bill in the direction of a Jewish student, Alan Movshovitch, asking if he “smelt the money” and to “go back to Israel.”

Movshovitch was visibly rattled by the experience, but said the “actions of a few bad apples can’t represent the rest of the group.”

A group of protestors holds up a sign stating “York University, Toronto police, stop your nonsense” in the direction of an Israeli flag. Ashleigh Stewart

But, like many, he says the antisemitism he’s experiencing now is the worst it’s ever been.

“I feel alone on campus. Walking through campus with my kippah, I get looks,” says Gabe Kaplan, a Jewish student at McMaster University. Kaplan says McMaster has become a “hostile environment for Jews” since Oct. 7, and during a pro-Palestinian march a woman came up to him to call him a “Zionist scumbag.”

Jeremy Urbach, of Western University, says the Israeli government should be separated from Judaism. While hanging posters about Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, he says he was followed by keffiyeh-wearing students who ripped them down.

Immediately after Oct. 7, Schnoor says he dedicated an hour of his class to addressing the attacks and has continuously made a point of talking to his students about the war — a stance, he says, that is at odds with many of his colleagues’.


“I want to build bridges on all sides and I don’t want anyone to feel like their views are being neglected.

“We have to try to find ways to address (antisemitism). We have to be vigilant. I try to do it through my methods, like, ‘Let’s talk to each other and prevent it before it starts.’”