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Calgary’s anti-lockdown protests with racist chants a ‘wicked problem’: Neufeld

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Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld has responded to criticism of how his officers handled an anti-mask protest on Saturday at the city's police commission meeting. Adam MacVicar reports – Mar 23, 2021

Hate crimes were up in Calgary in 2020, according to preliminary data from the city’s police force.

“Our initial review of data indicates that the volume of a crime has increased from our previous year, and crimes motivated by race, ethnicity — specifically Asian and Black communities — has increased,” Rebecca Davidson told the Calgary Police Commission Tuesday.

Read more: Body, car cameras of Calgary police create accountability, reduce force: reports

Calgary has notched more hate crimes per 100,000 people than Edmonton since 2017.

Hate crimes investigator Craig Collins said the Calgary Police Service is narrowing in on a suspect in the incident of a Confederate flag being flown in Union Cemetery.

Read more: ‘Shows how vile some people can be’: Calgarians react to Confederate flag in cemetery

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“The criminal offence involved in this would be the theft and removal of the original flag, and the replacing and firing up the Confederate flag is not an offence per se but does speak to the motivation behind the person that raised that flag,” he said.

A slide from the Calgary Police Service presentation about 10-year crime trends, presented to the Calgary Police Commission on March 23, 2021. handout / Calgary Police Service

Collins commented on the racially motivated assault on March 21 that saw a young woman assaulted and her hijab torn.

“We established that, prior to that altercation, the victim was likely targeted because she was wearing a hijab whereas her cousin wasn’t during the offence of the assault,” Collins said.

Read more: Calgary police charge 28-year-old woman with assault after ‘racially motivated hate crime’

But Collins said that assault was unrelated to “anti-lockdown” protests on Prince’s Island Park over the weekend.

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Commissioner Heather Campbell asked if CPS thinks hate crimes are going unreported within the city.

“We are intimately aware of the underreporting of these kinds of incidents, which is why we’re taking a proactive approach in the role of Craig (Collins) and his team,” Supt. Asif Rashid said.

Click to play video: 'Calgary city councillor pushes for tougher hate-crime legislation' Calgary city councillor pushes for tougher hate-crime legislation
Calgary city councillor pushes for tougher hate-crime legislation – Mar 22, 2021

Rashid said CPS is starting monthly meetings with the city’s Asian community to address concerns and fears from reports of anti-Asian racism.

“I am confident to say that at least 10 per cent of our reported hate crimes last year were a direct result of (anti-Asian COVID sentiment),” Collins said.

Read more: Anti-Asian racism in Canada more ‘frequent’ as report tallies hundreds of attacks during pandemic

The hate crime investigator said CPS members, including the diversity resources team, are encouraging the city’s Asian community to report all racist incidents to them.

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Incitement of hatred

CPS Chief Mark Neufeld confirmed that one of the anti-lockdown protests at Prince’s Island Park over the weekend saw CPS members pull down fencing the city put up around the stage at the park, allowing hundreds of protesters to occupy the space.

Neufeld said protest organizers were on site before officers and got behind the fencing to conduct the protest without a permit from the city. Police anticipated attendance at around 150-200, but when 800 people showed up, officers made the decision to allow them into that space.

Read more: Calgary police condemn racism, respond to weekend anti-lockdown protests

“It made more sense in the moment to allow them to have that space, notwithstanding that earlier decision by the city,” Neufeld told commissioner and Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra.

“That decision is an operational decision that was made at the time, which, frankly, incident commanders have to have the ability to make.”

Neufeld said those events factored into the CPS after-action report, and his officers are looking into whether bylaw-related charges can be laid against those who trespassed behind city fences.

Click to play video: 'Calgary police charge woman after ‘racially motivated hate crime’' Calgary police charge woman after ‘racially motivated hate crime’
Calgary police charge woman after ‘racially motivated hate crime’ – Mar 22, 2021

Neufeld said his officers are “well-trained to deal with crowd control” but called having to be witness to hateful rhetoric by people who aren’t following public health orders while also having to uphold their Charter rights “a wicked problem.”

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“Certainly, there’s no question that there have been some things going on at these rallies that are offensive and distasteful that haven’t risen to the level of criminal offences,” Neufeld told reporters. “I think that’s hard to understand for people.”

Read more: Calgary seeing rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, incidents: police, community members

Calgary’s top cop acknowledged that the image of officers apparently assisting protests that include white nationalists is a frustrating one for Calgarians, especially with heightened anxieties of the pandemic.

“I think people are pretty fed up, and I think they’re looking to the police again as the most visible partner or visible piece of the system to bring some sort of relief,” Neufeld said, noting the high bar for hate crime charges.

“We’re just having a difficult time delivering on that for them because it is a system issue.”

Collins said he witnessed anti-Muslim and anti-Francophone chants at an anti-lockdown protest. The hate crime investigator said police do not need the attorney general’s consent to lay public incitement of hatred charges under section 319(1) of the Criminal Code, as long as officers have evidence of such chants.

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“One of the challenges is we are looking at the crowd reaction to such speech,” Collins said.

Collins used a scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as an example of when incitement happens, pointing to when the townspeople hear from Gaston about how evil the Beast is.

“I know many of you will think that we’ve kind of met that (threshold then),” Collins said. “No, that’s free speech — regrettably, and it’s horrible for most of us.

Collins said if such speech led to a group mobilizing to commit further crimes following hateful chants or speeches — like when Gaston led the townspeople to confront the Beast — that would likely meet the threshold to be able to arrest and lay public incitement of hatred charges.

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Police investigate Confederate flag in Calgary cemetery as hate-motivated crime – Mar 17, 2021

On Monday, Carra, along with his fellow councillors, voted in favour of exploring advocacy and legislative changes to Canada’s hate crimes laws to better police protests like the one in Calgary on the weekend.

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“I think there’s a lot more to be done on all fronts in terms of how we move forward, what advocacy gets done, what tools get put in place,” Neufeld said. “But again, one of the biggest challenges is — and I’m not making any excuses — I’m simply saying this bumps up against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The thin blue line

Neufeld said he was aware of social media reports of officers wearing thin blue line patches on their uniforms, saying it’s been a longstanding symbol within policing north and south of the border. The police chief said it represents ideals of justice, bravery and service to the community, also honouring fallen officers, until recently.

“This particular symbol has been appropriated at least to some degree by white nationalist groups and it’s showing up at various high-profile protests and rallies where there has been racism and intolerance,” Neufeld said.

“Some Canadian police organizations… have recently directed officers not to display this insignia on their uniforms and CPS internal conversations have been underway for some period of time.”

Neufeld said those conversations paused following the death of Sgt. Andrew Harnett, but will pick up again, including with the newly formed anti-racism advisory board.

Read more: Anti-Asian racism in Canada more ‘frequent’ as report tallies hundreds of attacks during pandemic

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“I think there’s opportunity for a conversation that takes place outside of social media, and one that actually helps us understand what this symbol causes for people in the Calgary context, and also for us to share information with the community about what it actually means and where it came into play within the Calgary Police Service,” Neufeld told the commission.

“Can it be rehabilitated? I don’t know the answer to that. That will come in the conversation.”

Neufeld said part of those conversations would include the CPS boards and anti-racism action committee.

Dep. Chief Katie McLellan shared a report on the first meeting of the CPS anti-racism action committee, saying “it was nothing but powerful and was absolutely incredible.”

McLellan said the meeting lasted just over three hours.

“A lot of that time was spent listening to their lived experiences and their stories, and why they’re here, so it was just a phenomenal opportunity, and of course, one of many, many meetings.”

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