Some members of Edmonton’s queer community are frustrated with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) after a symposium recognizing Alberta Hate Crimes Awareness Day on May 10 focused on the need for the public to report hate crimes. The symposium, which had been planned months in advance, fell on the heels of a violent assault against a lesbian that was deemed a “random” attack by the EPS.
Shannon Barry was walking home from the bar with friends on April 17 when a group of men yelled homophobic slurs at them. One of the men kicked Barry in the face, leaving her with a broken jaw, a crushed left eye socket and facial nerve damage. A 14-year-old boy was arrested but the EPS Hate Crime Unit said the attack does not meet the legal threshold of a hate crime.
Alexa DeGagne, a member of the Community Response Project — a group that formed in response to the attack — says the symposium was, ironically, an opportunity for the EPS to pat itself on the back.
“The people in the room were being told again and again and again to report hate crimes, but we were all there because of a very specific case in which we all believe that it was a hate crime and nothing happened,” says DeGagne.
At the symposium, EPS Constable Ken Smith urged the community to trust the police.
“Why we hold these symposiums, and why we hold a talk with a community, is because we really need the trust of the community — because without that, people won’t report hate crimes as much,” he said.
But DeGagne says it’s the EPS’s responsibility to demonstrate that its officers are trustworthy. Following the assault on Barry, a police officer was called to the scene, but he waited five days to file a report.
“I don’t think citizens should be called to trust the police blindly, and I think there’s been some serious damage done to the relationship between the EPS and Edmonton’s queer community,” says DeGagne. “I actually think the police should take real action in rebuilding this relationship.”
At the symposium, the Community Response Project, which currently has about 120 active members, raised a number of concerns about hate-crime law in general. Some members, including DeGagne, believe there should be less focus on punishment and more emphasis on education.
According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, approximately 1 in 10 hate crimes in Canada targets sexual minorities. Calgary has the highest rate of police-reported hate crime in the country.
“Education is needed about differences within our community… and how to deal with that in a constructive, as opposed to violent, manner,” says DeGagne.
DeGagne also says the threshold for hate-crime conviction is high, and there’s no evidence that hate-crime law actually reduces hate-motivated crimes.
Stephen Camp, co-chair of the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee, which organized the symposium, says it’s extremely difficult to assess whether hate-crime laws prevent hate crime.
“Has there been a curtailment of hate crime in Canada? That’s hard to say, especially since hate crime is one of the least reported crimes in the criminal code,” says Camp.
Camp agrees that more education and restorative measures are needed, but he says it requires a multifaceted approach, including legislation.
Part of the problem, he adds, is that Canada lacks a uniform definition of hate crime. Even within different jurisdictions in Alberta, there are slight variations on how hate crimes are legally defined.
According to the EPS, in order for an incident to be considered a hate crime, it must be “driven by hate, prejudice, or bias.”
But DeGagne says this puts the burden of proof on the victim to show the crime was hate-motivated.
“That is a skewed idea of how hate actually works,” says DeGagne, “because arguably the most dangerous hate is when it’s happening day-to-day. And in the case of Shannon Barry, when those young boys said what they said, it obviously came with a feeling of hate, and Shannon was attacked accordingly.”
The Community Response Project has launched a Know Your Rights campaign to raise awareness about citizens’ rights when dealing with the police. The group is also planning to host town hall meetings to bring the Edmonton community together to talk about hate and discrimination.
“We feel like this is very much a first step to open dialogue with the EPS,” says DeGagne. “We’re not abandoning them, and we’re not ending this relationship. It’s quite the opposite — we want to move forward and try to see how we can change things and this culture of how we understand hate and hate crimes.”
Following the symposium, members of the Community Response Project agreed to meet with the EPS queer liaison committee. Two weeks ago, the group expressed concerns that the committee is toeing the line of the EPS and said it no longer serves Edmonton’s queer community.
“We do look forward to meeting with them and seeing where it goes,” says DeGagne.
This was the first year that Alberta Hate Crimes Awareness Day was recognized. The mayors of Calgary and Edmonton proclaimed the day, and events were held in both cities, as well as Lethbridge. In total, more than 400 people participated.