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'We're better than that': Racist incidents denounced in Calgary

Last Updated Mar 23, 2021 at 3:35 pm MDT

A series of racist events take place in Calgary, including a confederate flag being hung up at Union Cemetery, two men Nazi saluting downtown, and marchers holding tiki torches during an anti-mask rally downtown. 660 NEWS

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — Sunday was the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but it was a series of seemingly hate-motivated attacks that grabbed headlines over the weekend in Calgary.

During another anti-mask rally on Saturday, which involved protesters marching across the Peace Bridge in downtown Calgary, a violent incident was caught on video where a white supremacist punched a counter-protester who was in a wheelchair.

Then on Sunday, two Muslim women wearing hijabs were attacked by a woman in broad daylight on Prince’s Island Park.

Charges have been laid in the Sunday assault, but no charges have been announced after the incident on Saturday even though it was caught on video and police officers were nearby.

In a press release, police also noted they have limited ability to lay charges in relation to white supremacist or racist imagery seen at the COVID-19 protests which have become a fixture in Calgary over recent months.

On Monday, the events over the weekend were denounced by members of city council as there is a growing push to find ways to better police hate-motivated crimes.

“We’re better than that,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “There is no place for this kind of hate of our community. And I say in particular to the victims: know that you are loved, know that you are surrounded by a community that wants you to succeed, that wants you to have a great life here, and regardless of what has happened this community is there for you.”

Ward 3 Councillor Jyoti Gondek asked administration if it was possible to pursue a conversation between the local police and the provincial and federal governments on updating hate crimes legislation after police noted there is a very high bar that needs to be met before such serious charges can be laid.

“To make the threshold for prosecuting hate crimes less onerous. Would (the Calgary Police Service) be willing to partner to send that message, that we need those two orders of government to take hate crimes more seriously?” she asked.

“If there’s things that we can do to help the Calgary Police Service take this forward, we’d be happy to partner with them,” said City Manager David Duckworth.

Ward 9 Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra, who is also on the Calgary Police Commission, agreed this would be an important step and wants to push harder on this subject in further meetings with the police brass.

“We call them anti-mask rallies, but they are becoming more and more blatantly white supremacist rallies, and obviously we need to make some changes because they are getting worse,” Carra said.

 

RISE IN RACIST IMAGERY

 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in racist incidents seen in the public, particularly following the Black Lives Matter movement sparking massive demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the United States by a police officer in Minnesota.

Rallies in communities surrounding Calgary were crashed by racist demonstrators last summer, sometimes leading to violence, and the problem has grown even worse this year as COVID-19 restrictions continue to be in place.

RELATED: RCMP looking for those involved in demonstration assault in Red Deer

“Unless things are done are about these types of things, they’re likely to escalate,” said Brad Galloway, an anti-racism advocate with the Organization for the Prevention of Violence and the Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism.

Galloway said it is clear to see how racists have been capitalizing on the demonstrations opposing COVID-19 restrictions as a way to get their message out to a wider audience.

“We’re dealing with an ongoing issue of sort of connections between the far right and them using the platforms of these freedom marches or whatever they’re called. These types of things will continue to go on,” he warned. “We need to think about what these types of actions do to the communities, and how they affect the communities. So we have to think about that, where we need to get out in these communities and try to build resilience.”

It wasn’t only violence seen over the weekend, as anti-semitic imagery was also used by some of the protestors in Calgary.

These depictions have been linked to people falsely comparing health restrictions to the horrific conditions experienced by victims of the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Galloway said another way people can assist is by not naming some of the people involved in these actions, similar to the growing movement against naming perpetrators of mass shootings, to prevent the feeling that they may have achieved notoriety for their actions.

In addition to what happened just this past weekend, there was an instance of a Confederate flag flying at a Calgary cemetery which has drawn an investigation from the police and a video showing two people flashing the Nazi salute on Stephen Avenue further increasing the concern in the community.

RELATED: Calgary police investigating after Confederate flag hung up at Union Cemetery

This is all paired with the increase in anti-Asian hate that has stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic, as some people blame the Asian community for the virus spreading around the world. In the United States, eight people — including six women of Asian descent — were murdered in a mass shooting in Atlanta which has hallmarks of racism.

While there, fortunately, has not been the same level of violence locally towards Asians in Calgary, there is still concern in the community.

“We believe Calgarians are fair, representative people. They are not biased or hateful sort of people. Any sort of statement that gets out there and breeds hatred, whether it be against Asians is not tolerated in our community, is not tolerated in Calgary and certainly is not tolerated by any Calgarians,” said Terry Wong, Executive Director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area.

NDP MLA Thomas Dang said these recent incidents are showing more need to take political actions, as he has filed a motion to ban symbols of hate and violence at public rallies.

“We must do more to fight racism,” he said. “We must take action as leaders in Alberta. We’ve seen terrible incidents, just this weekend.

“We’ve seen six similar attacks in Edmonton in recent months. These are hate-motivated attacks and they are happening in broad daylight. I would argue that the brazen nature of these attacks are being spurred by general acceptance of hate symbols at demonstrations.”

Dang also mentioned the past protests that saw people carry tiki torches down the streets of Edmonton and Calgary, evoking comparisons to the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Dang and other political officials have noted that carrying torches is also akin to members of the Ku Klux Klan marching against civil rights and burning crosses in demonstrations targeted against African-Americans.

The Edmonton-Southwest MLA said this legislation would create the tools to allow for police to better enforce offensive images being used during these demonstrations and can also go a long way to helping people feel safer in the community.

 

POLICING RACISM

 

Another issue brought to light over the weekend is the role police play in what has been happening. There has been consistent criticism for the police not acting quick enough on incidents of racism, and not preventing these anti-mask demonstrations from happening.

The justification from the police and high-ranking officials in the province has been that there is a constitutional right to peaceful assembly, as there are no grounds to stop the protests even if the views presented may be offensive to some.

But this could play into the problem we see with increasing instances of hate-motivated crimes and other actions seen in the streets.

“When it seems like they’re given leeway to act and be out there for periods of time, they end up sort of escalating their behaviours,” Galloway added.

Local activists who saw the man in a wheelchair get punched by a protester on Saturday specifically mentioned the police who were at the scene, directing attention to so-called “thin blue line” patches on their uniforms.

While typically seen as a way to show support for police, the thin blue line marker has also been widely adopted by far-right groups especially when they express their opposition to movements like Black Lives Matter which are openly critical of systemic racism in policing.

Criticism of the patch even got to a point where the RCMP told its members to stop wearing it while on duty, according to documents obtained by reporters in 2020. The chief of police in Ottawa also banned the use of the patch earlier this year.

Mayor Nenshi said he feels there is good work being done around anti-racism in the Calgary Police Service and hopes this extends to imagery worn on police uniforms.

“They claim that the thin blue line means different things to different people, I don’t know enough about it to make that judgement but I do know that the police service leadership and the police service have committed to anti-racism and I would expect that would be true of every single serving member of the police,” he said.

During a Calgary Police Commission meeting on Tuesday, Chief Constable Mark Neufeld addressed some of the controversy around the patch. Neufeld said for his service, the thin blue line represents the ideals of justice, bravery and service to the community.”

“In recent years, though, it’s become very clear that insignia — as we well know — can represent different things to different people,” he added. “I think there’s opportunity for a conversation that takes place outside social media, and actually helps us understand what this symbol (means) for people in the Calgary context.”

Neufeld said the symbol has a more positive connotation in Canada, but he noted it has been seen more commonly during white nationalist rallies particularly in the United States. But he wants to have more conversations, especially with the anti-racism advisory board, to explore other options.

“If it’s an offensive symbol to the community, I don’t think that’s what we want either at the end of the day.”

Nenshi said there are a lot of issues to tackle all at once in the community, relating to initiatives around systemic racism throughout local institutions and actions among people in the general public.

“Certainly, we should be able to make sure that people can feel safe walking down the street or taking the Ctrain without being harassed about their race or their religion. So this is a horrifying story,” he said.