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Edmonton police chief condemns tiki torch carrying but says no evidence of hate crime at recent rally

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee speaks to reporters on March 2, 2021. Global News

Edmonton’s police chief says he knows concerns continue to be raised about a rally against public health measures last month, during which some participants carried tiki torches, but his department has yet to unearth any evidence that a hate crime was committed at the event.

“Tiki torches… certainly, I denounce that,” Dale McFee said at a news conference on Tuesday. “There’s no place for that. But that said, there’s a difference between the legal threshold in relation to what is a hate crime.

“We still have to have intent under the Criminal Code.”

McFee’s news conference was held to give reporters an opportunity to ask him anything, and a February rally against COVID-19 measures at the Alberta legislature dominated the question-and-answer session.

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Some people are concerned that the protest, at which counter-protesters also showed up, may have been motivated by white supremacist ideology. Numerous protesters were seen carrying tiki torches through downtown Edmonton after the rally on Feb. 20.

READ MORE: March held to protest COVID-19 restrictions raises concerns about racism in Alberta 

Ever since tiki torches were carried by white nationalists over a notoriously violent and deadly weekend in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, the lights have been viewed by many as a symbol of racism when used at rallies.

“Let’s be very clear, if we’re going back to the old days that were in Virginia, we denounce that,” McFee said Tuesday. “There’s no place for that in any of our communities. But what we’ve also got to be careful of is that doesn’t mean that there… (are) legal grounds… to lay charges. But that doesn’t mean we’re going… (to) stop investigating.”

McFee said while he knows that the rally is viewed by many as a racist event, the Edmonton Police Service had members of its hate crimes unit there and did not see anything that would legally meet the definition of a hate crime.

“If you have that evidence, we would love to see it,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have that evidence.”

READ MORE: Calgary city council denounces acts and symbols of hatred at weekend protest 

The police chief said he saw interviews that some TV news outlets conducted with rally attendees in which some of the demonstrators indicated they “don’t even know why they were carrying those torches.”

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“I think we’ve got to be careful,” McFee said. “That doesn’t mean the organizers didn’t think differently.

“Because somebody says that’s a white supremacist rally, you have to have evidence that it is.”

In a statement to Global News this week, the organizer of the rally in question, Brad Carrigan, said the use of tiki torches has “little if anything to do with white supremacy or racism.”

“This silly narrative started during the anti-Trump movement in the U.S.A. and has now bled into Canada as a way for politicians to control and spin a narrative, all to undermine the peaceful nature of the Walk for Freedom movement,” he said.

A number of politicians, including Premier Jason Kenney, spoke out after the rally at the legislature last month.

“I understand that publicity for this event incorporated an image apparently taken from the notorious 2017 Charlottesville torch rally, which was an explicitly white supremacist event,” Kenney said. “Prominent racists promoted Saturday’s protest at the legislature, and individuals attended the event from known hate groups like the Soldiers of Odin and Urban Infidels.

“I condemn these voices of bigotry in the strongest possible terms.”

At the time, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney’s statement didn’t address all the racist elements she believes were at play in the rally and questioned why he didn’t issue a statement immediately after the rally.

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“Torch rallies have been associated with some of the most heinous displays of racism in history,” she said. “Albertans deserve a premier who is unequivocal in condemning hate and racism.”

Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told Global News he believes “it’s likely no chargeable hate crime originated from the rally itself.”

“That’s neither here nor there,” he said in an email on Tuesday night. “That’s a whole other, huge systemic issue and conversation.

“They don’t have to charge attendees or organizers with a hate crime for this specific rally. They should have deterred it in the first place because of how inexorably tied together the COVID(-19) conspiracy and hate movement is in Canada.”

Balgord noted at least one of the organizers used a photo of a “Nazi rally” to promote the event and even after the planned rally started getting media attention, “they chose to keep it and doubled down on using torches like Charlottesville.”

“So that’s no accident,” he said.

“Every single hate group we track is involved in COVID(-19) conspiracy and anti-lockdown demonstrations… This is not hyperbole or an exaggeration. Every single one. And they’re radicalizing other COVID(-19) conspiracists who may have started out with only the critical-thinking deficiencies that are the basic cost of entry. Now, far too many are getting inducted into the full-blown racism part. It’s bad.”

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Balgord said he believes the police should be clearly calling such events hate rallies and very bluntly condemn them and threaten to ticket anyone who shows up to such a rally.

“Anything short of this, the conspiracists perceive as police support and it emboldens them,” he said.

Irfan Chaudhry, the director of the office of human rights, diversity and equity at MacEwan University, tweeted that he found McFee’s response “disheartening” and noted Edmonton has been the site of multiple allegedly hate-motivated attacks in recent weeks.

Watch below: (From Feb. 22, 2021) A rally held to protest COVID-19 restrictions is now raising concern over racism in Alberta. Many in attendance demonstrated carried tiki torches as they marched through the streets of downtown Edmonton. Lisa MacGregor looks at the message the march could send about Alberta.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 restriction rally raises concern about racism in Alberta' COVID-19 restriction rally raises concern about racism in Alberta
COVID-19 restriction rally raises concern about racism in Alberta – Feb 22, 2021

McFee said someone at the rally threw punches at several officers, causing minor injuries. Police are still hoping to identify them and charge them. He said overall, however, the rally was fairly peaceful.

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“With the number of protests we’ve had in the last year or more, for the most part, most of these were peaceful,” McFee said. “That doesn’t mean that there (aren’t) some things we need to address.”

McFee said just because his police force has yet to see evidence of a hate crime at the tiki torch rally, his police department’s work on improving communication with various cultural and ethnic groups in the city is ongoing. He said any group can request a formal meeting with police to discuss concerns.

“We feel, more than ever, we’ve got to get out to the community. We’ve got to listen,” he said, adding that it’s important all Edmontonians feel able to report crimes or concerns “without fear” and have the belief that action will be taken by police when things are reported to them.

“A lot of these strides, a lot of these gains (have) to be made with the communities who, for the right reasons and because it’s been for a number of years, have lost faith in the entire system — and we’re a part of that system,” McFee said. “Now’s the time… (We’ve got to) show them what we’ve changed as a result of those meetings.”

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