As Toronto police investigate an attack on a 11-year-old Muslim girl this week as a possible hate crime, a human rights advocate says that official statistics provide only a "tiny glimpse" into the kinds of hateful acts minority communities face in Canada.
Khawlah Noman, a student at Pauline Johnson Junior Public School in Scarborough, Ont., was walking to school on Friday morning when a man approached her from behind and tried twice to cut off her hijab with a pair of scissors, according to police.
"For those of us who wear a head scarf, it's like we have a target on us," said Amira Elghawaby, a human rights advocate based in Ottawa. Elghawaby was formerly spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).
"These are message crimes. They are incidents that are meant to send a message that certain communities are not welcome."
While investigators have not made any definitive conclusions as to the motivation for the alleged attack on Noman, data published by Statistics Canada last summer highlighted that the number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 jumped 60 per cent compared to the year before.
While there were 20 fewer hate crimes against Muslims reported in 2016, Elghawaby said that "various political discourse" following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump has emboldened a hateful minority of Canadians to become more "vocal."
"It's that minority that is frightening many of us," she said.
"Online hate and these echo chambers of ignorance and anti-immigrant sentiment — these spaces are fuelling a lot of these attitudes," she continued, adding that in her experience, the majority of possible hate crimes — whether perpetrated against Muslims or any other minority group — go unreported.
Difficult to prosecute
In her work with the NCCM, she encountered many people who described the reporting process as uncomfortable and disappointing, leaving victims to wonder whether it is worth the personal cost to do so.
"The police are often not really equipped to address these issues. They're slow to react and they are not providing the necessary support to the victims. We've seen this right across the country," she said.
A 2014 Stats Canada survey found that up to two-thirds of perceived hate crimes are never reported to police.
In cases that are reported, definitively proving that a certain crime was motivated by hate can be very difficult, according to criminal lawyer Alvin Shidlowski.
Besides, "no one is ever charged with a hate crime," he said, explaining that even if prosecutors argue that hate played a role in an alleged crime, it can only be added as an aggravating factor by the sentencing judge if the accused is convicted.
Considering the circumstances of the alleged attack on Noman, Shidlowski reckons the suspect would be charged with assault, assault with a weapon or perhaps aggravated assault.
"The factual underpinnings here are that scissors were used to cut this young girl's hijab. Then one certainly has to arrive at the conclusion that this is likely motivated by something toward her faith," he told CBC Toronto.
In response to Noman's harrowing account of the attack, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he "can't imagine how afraid she must've been.
"I want her and her family and her friends and community to know that that is not what Canada is."
The assertion is perhaps based on an idyllic notion of Canadian society that is not always reflected in reality, Elghawaby said. While full-fledged hate crimes may be relatively rare, "hateful incidents" — like drivers angrily yelling at her "take off her head scarf" —are not, she added.
In Ontario, Hamilton is the only city that publishes data on self-reported hateful incidents, providing a clearer picture into the kinds of behaviour minority groups often face in their daily lives.
In her own experience, hateful incidents tend to increase when events involving Muslims are in the news. She expects that a campaign to have January 29 designated as a "national day of remembrance and action on Islamophobia" in honour of six people killed inside a Quebec City mosque on that date in 2017 could fuel a rise in hateful incidents in coming weeks.
Elghawaby said hateful rhetoric and action must be addressed at every level in society if it is to be overcome.
"This is going to require a very holistic approach — at the school level, at the government level and at the community level. We have to understand that hatred, ignorance and xenophobia can really lead to divided communities and end up harming all of us."