A 41-year-old man is facing several charges after two Somali women were attacked outside a south Edmonton shopping centre in what police say was a “hate-motivated incident.”
In a news release, police said officers were called to an assault that was taking place in the Southgate Centre parking lot at 3:40 p.m. on Tuesday.
“It was reported to police that a male had approached two Somali female complainants wearing hijabs (and) sitting in their vehicle, then began yelling racially-motivated obscenities at the women,” police said.
“Witnesses told police the male then allegedly proceeded to punch the passenger-side window, causing it to shatter.”
The passenger in the vehicle feared for her safety and ran away, police said, adding that the suspect ran after her, pushed her to the ground “and began assaulting her.”
They said the other victim tried to help but was also shoved to the ground by the suspect. At that point, several bystanders jumped in and were able to stop the assault.
The Edmonton Police Service said its hate crimes and violent extremism unit is working with investigators on the case.
“The attack on these women is horrific and our hearts go out to them,” said Sgt. Gary Willits of the EPS Hate Crime and Violent Extremism Unit.
“These individuals were targeted due to their race, therefore making this a hate-motivated crime.”
“As such, we are utilizing Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which allows courts to consider increased sentencing.”
Forty-one-year-old Richard Bradley Stevens of Edmonton has been charged with two counts of assault and one count of mischief.
On Friday, the lawyer for the victims issued a statement thanking the community for its support during their ordeal.
Tariq Salloum said the family wanted to express “gratitude and love for the outpour of concerns, well-wishes and signs of solidarity that has been shown from the community at large.”
“We ask that you please respect our family’s need for privacy during this difficult time and request your support in maintaining our family’s anonymity,” the statement reads in part.
“The family asks that members of the public continue to keep them in their prayers as they attempt to process the breadth of these tragic circumstances.”
Salloum said a family representative would issue a statement in the near future.
Mayor Don Iveson tweeted about the attack on Wednesday afternoon.
“My thoughts are w/ these women & racialized communities in #YEG who see incidents like this & are concerned for their safety,” he tweeted. “Know that Edmontonians are with you & that #yegcc is committed to fighting against systemic prejudice & discrimination.
“Racist hatred has no place here.”
“We are deeply saddened by the hate-motivated attack on two female Muslim Edmontonians,” Al Rashid Mosque said in a statement.
“Our prayers and thoughts go out to the victims. We pray that they recover from the physical and emotional trauma inflicted upon them.”
Willits described the incident as worse than what the hate crimes unit normally sees in Edmonton.
“We have not seen anything like this in years,” he told Global News. “To see a physical attack is unique and rare. Edmonton is a very diverse city — very community-oriented… People stand up for one another.”
However, Willits said the attack serves as a reminder that racism still exists and that it’s important for communities to stand against it together.
“We will not tolerate this behaviour,” he said. “To know that these two persons had done nothing, they were in their neighbourhood, it was daylight in a public setting and they’re sitting in their vehicle safe… To be attacked… (it’s) just sickening.
“This was a horrific incident that happened but this does not define Edmonton.”
Willits said he spoke with the victims. Both are still sore from the attack and one of the victims became unconscious at one point in the incident.
“As you can expect, (they are) extremely traumatized,” he said. “We’re going to be working closely with this family and with the community.”
Willits emphasized the most important thing victims and witnesses can do to help police investigate hate crimes is to report them in the first place.
He added that if someone sees an attack unfolding, getting video of the incident is helpful for police but added that witnesses should only record video or intervene if they are sure they can do so safely.
Chief Dale McFee tweeted he was impressed by the courage shown by the victims and witnesses and by how swiftly his officers were able to move the case forward.
“This has to stop in our community!” he tweeted.
In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Ivanhoé Cambridge, which owns the shopping centre where the parking lot attack occurred, said the company is working to help police with their investigation.
“We are deeply troubled by these events… such allegedly violent, discriminatory and heinous behaviours which are contrary to our core values,” the statement reads in part. “Our hearts go out to the two women involved with the incident.
“We want everyone to be welcome in our centre irrespective of their race, religion or gender.”
Watch below: Some Global News videos about hate crimes.
Hate crimes researcher Irfan Chaudhry, who is also the director of the office of human rights, diversity and equity at MacEwan University, said it was important for leaders to speak out.
“What’s been really powerful is the number of individuals — whether through social media or other channels — that have expressed that they are going to, in some way, shape or form, try to reach out to either the women specifically or the communities impacted.
“We saw a pretty strong statement from our mayor, our chief of police, and I think those statements are important… But I think in terms of community response to hate, it’s really being able to make sure there are those support mechanisms in place for people to know they’re not alone… for them to know that this is something we don’t want to tolerate and we’re working to address.”
Chaudhry was also reassured to see the police respond quickly, lay the charge and update the public.
“So folks are aware that these types of behaviours — especially as violent as this one was — won’t be tolerated at all,” he said.
“It reaffirms the importance that police services continue to commit to addressing all crimes, but especially hate-related crimes in the current context we’re under.”
While there is still work to be done across Canada, this police response indicates the EPS is taking hate-related crimes seriously, Chaudhry said.
“I think more and more of these types of examples where police are quick to respond, lay charges and convey their support and connection to the impacted, vulnerable communities, that’s how you can start to build and rebuild some of that trust.”
— with files from Emily Mertz