Islamic and Jewish faith-based schools in Alberta could receive thousands of provincial dollars to beef up security measures at their institutions, following calls from families for protection against hate-motivated crimes.
The calls for extra security come as tensions rise over the conflict between Israel and Hamas — the Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza Strip — that started Oct. 7.
"Motivated acts of harassment and vandalism have no place on our streets, schools, or places of worship," Alberta Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis said during a news conference Thursday.
Eligible schools can apply for grant funding through the Alberta Security Infrastructure Program over the next year, Ellis said.
The funds are meant to cover the costs associated with physical patrolling, training and installing or upgrading security equipment such as cameras. The grant could also be used to recoup money spent on extra security since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, sparking the current conflict in the Middle East.
Maximum allotments depend on why the school is seeking money. Schools looking to enhance security equipment, for example, could receive up to $25,000, while those using money for education and training could receive up to $10,000, according to the provincial government's website.
Islamic independent schools, faith-based "alternative programs" for Islamic and Jewish students and Arabic bilingual schools — including those operating as charter schools — are eligible for the money, according to program guidelines. School boards or school authorities would have to apply on their behalf, however.
Education minister Demetrios Nicolaides has heard from Muslim and Jewish families alike who are worried about school security, as the number of hate-motivated incidents and tension in the Middle East rise.
"Our schools should always be welcome, caring and respectful places for our students," Nicolaides said. "Unfortunately, that's not the case for too many Jewish and Muslim students in our province."
Students attending Edmonton Islamic Academy, a K-12 school, are among those affected.
Edmonton Islamic Academy's principal, Abraham Abougouche, said Muslim students in the school community are facing increasing verbal and online threats. (Travis McEwan/CBC)
Students at the school have been subjected to verbal harassment and threats from members outside of the community, said principal Abraham Abougouche.
"[Parents] asked us to look into and implement additional strategies, bring in additional supports that'll allow students and staff — and all families, frankly — to come to school and feel safe," Abougouche told CBC News.
Opening up provincial money is a "preemptive measure" instigated by parents in both communities, not a response to threat in Alberta schools, Ellis said.
"We certainly have seen some of the things that have occurred in other jurisdictions in Canada," he said.
Thursday's announcement gives the Jewish community a sense of protection — and it comes at the start of Hanukkah, said Stacey Leavitt-Wright, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton.
CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, Stacey Leavitt-Wright, says Thursday's funding announcement is a relief to the Jewish community. (Travis McEwan/CBC)
"Today's announcement gives us light in these dark days that are descended upon our people," Leavitt-Wright said.
The provincial government is also offering Alberta sheriffs to help local police forces patrol faith-based schools, Ellis said, although he recognizes local police are already overstretched trying to combat organized crimes in cities.
"We can provide that officer presence as a potential mechanism, understanding that the local jurisdiction would have first right to choose whether or not they want to do it or not," Ellis said.
Police reporting more hate-related crimes
Police officials in Alberta's two largest cities say they've reported several dozen hate-motivated incidents stemming from the Israel-Hamas war.
Since the start of October, Edmonton police reported 13 "hate-related events," including crimes and incidents, against the Jewish community and 11 such events against the Muslim community, an Edmonton police spokesperson told CBC News.
Police officers have also monitored 63 "demonstrations, vigils and events of various sizes" related to the war since it started on Oct. 7, the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, Calgary police have reported 24 hate-motivated crimes regarding the war since Oct. 7, a Calgary police spokesperson said.
Half of those incidents are still under investigation, the spokesperson said, but five were deemed hate-motivated crimes and two have been deemed "hate incidents."
Five other incidents were deemed "neither hate-motivated crimes nor incidents," they said.
The Alberta Security Infrastructure Program had a budget of $5 million last year — an increase of $3 million from its inaugural year in 2021.
The increase was to beef up security in places of worship such as synagogues, mosques and churches.