Published in the Vancouver Observer | March 19, 2012 | Circulation 125,000 unique monthly visitors
It’s still unclear whether a Filipino man from New Westminster – sleeping on a white couch at Commercial and 5th just before midnight on Oct. 10, 2009 – woke up when three neo-Nazis poured flammable liquid on him, or after they lit him on fire. The 26-year-old man escaped with burn injuries, tearing his flaming shirt off as he ran.
We do know, however, that a black man had the courage to help, only to get beaten himself and taunted for his skin colour, according to witnesses, in a white supremacist case that has police and activists worried and searching for answers as we approach the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Wednesday.
“Hate crimes and racist activities affect communities throughout British Columbia,” Det. Cst. Terry Wilson, head of the BC Hate Crimes Team, told the Vancouver Observer over coffee near the B.C. law courts, on the recent attacks by Neo-Nazi groups on visible minorities. “It’s not a wave of crime, but it happens everywhere in the province.
“Apathy or silence is condoning it. To have people in a community that are silent about stuff that’s going on around their community, then they’re condoning the offender to continue doing it.”
Wilson joined the team in 2009, only a month after the Commercial Drive attack, but the respected investigator has been working hate crimes cases since 1995. His partner, RCMP Corp. Normandie Levas, applied for a position in the unit after being impressed with Wilson’s presentation in a policing class. The two plainclothes detectives take on cases from across the province, and get involved in Vancouver files where white supremacist groups are suspected.
Last year, their unit – the only integrated force of its kind in Canada, weaving together RCMP and municipal investigators – reviewed its outstanding files. In December, Wilson and Levas announced assault charges against three alleged neo-Nazis with the white supremacist group Blood and Honour.
The men were later confirmed to be associates of the group in emails hacked by the group Anonymous earlier this year, and they have been documented with the group’s merchandise. Charges have not, however, been proven, and membership in a white supremacist organization is not illegal in Canada.
When the Vancouver Observer sat down with three of B.C.’s top hate crimes detectives, all were hesitant to discuss ongoing investigations, or how the Blood and Honour case came together. But media accounts and court documents paint the picture as more incidents soon became part of the investigation.
Beaten bloody on the street
On July 24, 2010, an Aboriginal woman and her Hispanic boyfriend were walking past the same East Vancouver intersection of the burning incident nine months before, when they were assaulted – police alleged the assailant was Blood and Honour’s reported ringleader, Shawn MacDonald, 40. He faces trial Feb. 20-22, 2013.
But the attacks on people of colour don’t stop there. Saqi Mohamed was pursued, headbutted and beaten bloody and unconscious in the middle of Commercial Drive in 2009. He’s sure his attacker was De Chazal, he told CBC News, and that his motives were racist. Mohamed will be testifying in the Blood and Honour case.
“They beat me up and just left me there in the middle of the street,” Mohamed said. “I think they attacked me because of my skin colour.”
Then there is the assault on Papi Ngoqo, a South African man living in Vancouver. He was brutally beaten in front of a CBC videographer on Dec. 12, 2008, near Oak and King Edward – allegedly by MacDonald.
With the battle against racism heating up in Vancouver, three detectives took the Vancouver Observer inside the work of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD)’s hate crimes unit, and the BC Hate Crimes Team.
It was the police’s announcement last December that mobilized community organizations to act. In the months since, groups like No One Is Illegal, the Filipino Canadian Youth Alliance and the Indigenous Action Movement have staged demonstrations outside court hearings. Yesterday, they marked International Day to Eliminate Racial Discrimination early – with a 400-strong march against racism down Commercial Drive, where many attacks took place, decrying the slow police response and what they describe as systemic racism in the Canada.
BC’s failure to contain racism
“The very big demonstration against them on Commercial Drive on Sunday showed the strength of the community in fighting racism,” said Alan Dutton, with the Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society (CAERS). “Policing is not enough – it’s the last resort.
“We have to have strong community organizations to oppose racism. . . You can’t rely on policing agencies or government to be the main approach to fighting racism. They have to work with community organizations to be effective. In BC, that is a failure.”
The government support for community organizations is simply not there, Dutton explained, and under recently resigned provincial multiculturalism minister Harry Bloy, the situation got even worse. Aside from some school education programs and multiculturalism awareness, the province does not consult with grassroots anti-racist groups or fund community organizations. All that, Dutton qualified, is not to say the police are not doing their jobs – just that police are inadequate to addressing racism’s systemic issues.
“It’s really important what the BC Hate Crimes Team did – making the community aware that charges were being brought and that Blood and Honour is organizing in the province of British Columbia, and we have to pay attention to it,” Dutton said. “I congratulate the Hate Crimes Team for doing that.
“While we have good, capable officers in the police agencies who have done outstanding work, we’re still in a situation with major problems – they’re not being addressed.”
Inside hate crimes investigations
Wilson’s story with fighting hate crimes started 17 years ago, on April 19, 1995. On that day Timothy McVeigh – an anti-government extremist and one-time Ku Klux Klan member – blew up a building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, the deadliest terrorist event inside the U.S. until September 11, 2001. Wilson worked for the police in London, Ont. and started researching McVeigh’s conspiracist ideology. When the province mandated that all communities create a hate crimes desk, Wilson got the job.
“Organized hate only accounts for a small portion of hate crimes in Canada. Most of them are individual acts of spontaneous violence, in individual acts of spontaneous property damage,” he said. “Hate crimes affect the community as a whole – giving a sense of safety to communities, that we’re actually doing our jobs when it comes to hate crimes, is very rewarding.”
Levas jumped in, smiling as she describes her work as “rewarding” – despite many people’s reluctance to report hate crimes they have experienced. She and Wilson both admit that most racist bias crimes go unreported – Levas speculates the reason may be a lack of awareness about what hate crimes are, or in the case of immigrants, a lack of trust in authorities.
“We don’t hide behind our desks, we’re out there and are involved in the community and are more than willing to talk to people,” Levas said. “The more we get out there, it would open up lines of communication between police and the community – and maybe that fear would be taken away a little bit, that resistance to speak to the police.”
Investigating white supremacists
So how do police investigate white supremacist groups? Unless someone is advocating genocide or inciting others to violence, there is not actually a “hate crime” one can be charged with. Instead, once a suspect is convicted of a crime, prosecutors can address the motivation of the crime during sentencing. So much of the detectives’ work is piecing together information about their targets.
“We look at things like patterns of behaviour by offender, and what the victim feels – that’s a huge part,” Wilson explained. “How the victim interprets the offence against them can go a long way in leading us to believe that it’s a hate crime.
“Investigations never end – even when we send a package to Crown, we’re still following up with stuff, so we gotta be careful. One of our biggest problems, or talking points, is we don’t want to profile organized hate. We don’t ever want to be put in position of advertising it.”
But Dutton, who has researched racism organizations for 25 years, said that a major aspect of police investigations into white supremacist groups is through surveillance and undercover officers inside the groups. He pointed to the widely publicized outing of Grant Bristow – a Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) agent planted inside the racist Heritage Front from 1988-1994 – who faced criticism for helping build up the organization.
“That’s the main way of getting information – it is not only to infiltrate, but also to encourage people to defect, to give information about the organizations,” Dutton said. “No one wants to discuss undercover operations.
“But anyone who would deny there are undercover operations, after the history of such operations in Canada, would be wrong. We have to scrutinize it in the community. Obviously, there has to be some secrecy.”
When VO asked the BC Hate Crimes Team how they gather intelligence, Wilson declined, explaining that their investigations are ongoing and also before the courts. But when asked to confirm whether the authorities have undercover officers within BC white supremacist groups, the question seemed to catch the detectives off guard.
“In the groups?” Wilson responded.
“We can’t talk about any ongoing investigations or intelligence-gathering,” Levas interjected.
Though police could not disclose their investigative strategies, it is likely their information-gathering has intensified recently, said Dutton.
“I’d expect that every communication would be monitored, and every email and website scrutinized, every march, every meeting would have at least some attention,” he added.
In any case, the team works closely with municipal forces, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD)’s hate crimes unit under Det. Cst. Cheryl Leggett, and the Attorney General. The government funds an outreach program, Embrace BC, which educates about racism and diversity issues in the community. But Dutton said the program did not live up to its antiracism mandate.
“I think Embrace BC has failed,” he said. “Programs undertaken are not done with full community consultation.
“Antiracist organizations have largely died on the vine. There’s one dealing with immigration (No One Is Illegal) – and they are certainly not invited to government negotiations.”
Swastikas: not just paint on the wall
One of the greatest barriers remains under-reporting and a lack of awareness among the public.
“A fear of coming forward, a fear of retaliation or even embarrassment – that’s also a hurdle,” Levas said. “We want people to know that if they are a victim of crime they believe is motivated by hate, we’re here. There are resources we can offer.
“If you’re coming from a country where the police are corrupt, and you come here and are the victim of a crime, you don’t have that trust,” she said. “That’s a big thing – trust.”
For hate crimes detectives, investigations are not divided into violent versus property crimes. That’s because the patterns of behaviour among white supremacists transcend that definition – and because racist or anti-Semitic vandalism has a violent effect.
“A swastika to most people might just be paint on a wall to someone, but to a Jewish person that represents six million people murdered during the Holocaust,” Levas offered as an example. “That’s one way to look at it.”
When asked about extensive vandalism and Nazi graffiti on a Jewish cemetery in Victoria at the end of 2011, as well as a spate of anti-
Semitic vehicle scratchings in Vancouver last month, Wilson agreed that vandalism targeted at a minority community is akin to violence.
“Even though a property crime might be a property crime, a swastika on Synagogue or a Jewish cemetery is a targeted act,” he said. “It’s meant to – if you want to grandiose terms like ‘terrorize’ – it’s meant to scare people, it’s meant to disturb people.
“So although that would be coded as a property offence, the effect it has on that community is in relation to, is comparable to a violent offence.”
The number of reported hate crimes, according to Statistics Canada, are on the rise across Canada – the number of known incidents grew from 892 in 2006 to 1,473 in 2009, a 65 per cent rise. Among those, the vast majority were mischief charges, followed by assault and uttered threats. In 2008, Vancouver and Hamilton, Ont. tied for highest per capita hate crimes. In 2009, the most recent data, Vancouver had dropped to sixth place – the top four cities were in southern Ontario – but in fact the numbers had risen, just not as fast as other cities.
Vancouver had 73 reported hate crimes in 2006; 79 in 2007; 143 in 2008; and it rose again to 163 in 2009, or 7 incidents per 100,000 people (Canadian cities averaged at 5.6).
“I think what it shows you is that the communities in British Columbia – and the police in British Columbia – are much more aware of what a hate crime really is,” Wilson said. “As a result, we get good reports.
“Unfortunately, it means we do investigations, and the media highlights these investigations. There’s no more hate crime than there was before, we’re just now getting really good reports from community groups, and really good investigations by grassroots police officers.”
*Jan. 17, 2023: article edited to remove the names of people who were ultimately acquitted of any crimes