In the aftermath of the Oct. 22, 2014 shooting in Ottawa, many Muslims across Canada felt worried that they would be targeted en masse for the actions of one deranged individual. This concern is well known to Muslims and other marginalized communities, who lack the privilege of being judged as individuals, instead being regarded as representatives of their community.
This concern was shared by the Toronto Police Service, which increased its presence around mosques in the city immediately after the shooting in order to help prevent retaliatory hate crimes.
Staff Supt. Mario Di Tommaso, the co-chair of the TPS’ Muslim Consultative Committee, told Ricochet that “there was no specific, credible threat” against the Muslim community at the time of the attack, but the extra police presence was sent “out of an abundance of caution.”
“Using past experience, we were very concerned that there would be a backlash from certain extreme individuals in the general population that would have strong views with regard to all Muslims.”
Di Tommaso cited the rampant level of Islamophobia online, as well as hate crimes against mosques that have occurred since 9/11, as specific indicators that there may be a backlash.
According to Di Tommaso, the heightened police presence following the Ottawa shooting lasted a week, focused on military institutions and mosques, and consisted of officers throughout the city making “frequent drive-bys” around places of interest. He also said that officers who needed to write their daily incident reports were instructed to “drive to a mosque or a military institution just to show a heightened police presence, and . . . do their reports in the car.”
There was also an increased police presence around mosques in other Canadian cities, including Ottawa. Despite these efforts, numerous hate crimes took place in the weeks after the shooting.
Mosques were vandalized in Ottawa, Kingston, Alberta and Quebec within the first month following the Ottawa shooting. Windows were smashed, and xenophobic messages were spray painted on walls, with damages exceeding $10,000 at some sites. The vandalized mosque in Kingston also had a Star of David and a cross drawn in the snow around its smashed windows.
Thus far Toronto has been spared of similar incidents. According to Di Tommaso, he had not received, between the period when the patrol began until the time of the interview, “any information of any hate crimes being committed against a mosque or an individual Muslim” in Toronto.
Di Tommaso did note that the increased police presence elicited somewhat of a backlash from the public.
“There were members of the public that called me expressing their displeasure that they saw us protecting the mosques. Quite frankly some of their commentary was very racist in nature, that ‘All Muslims should be deported’ and ‘How dare you protect these people?’ and ‘Can’t you get it through your thick heads that we had our parliament attacked and two soldiers killed and yet you’re protecting Muslims?’ It’s that type of backlash that I wanted to protect against.”
The reaction the increased police presence received from many Muslims in Toronto was notably different.
Di Tommaso informed members of the Muslim Consultative Committee of the increased police presence in an email sent hours after the shooting occurred. The committee is a group of police officers, imams and Muslim community members with a mandate “to work together in partnership with identified community representatives in identifying, prioritizing, and problem-solving of policing issues.”
Di Tommaso’s email gained a great deal of traction online after it was shared on Twitter by Yusuf Badat, a member of the Muslim Consultative Committee and the vice-chair at the Canadian Council of Imams.
Abdul Hai Patel, the inter-faith director at the Canadian Council of Imams and member of the Muslim Consultative Committee, said in an email that the TPS email was “timely and welcomed by many.” The email was passed on to the Canadian Council of Imams by the Muslim Consultative Committee in order to allow imams across Toronto to spread news of the increased police presence to Muslims in the city.
Di Tommaso said the response from members of the Muslim Consultative Committee was “overwhelmingly positive” and that Muslims in Toronto “were indebted, they were thankful and they were grateful.”
Some Muslims were more skeptical of the increased police presence.
Muhammad, a master’s of engineering student at Ryerson University, said, “Based on the reason they [the TPS] provided, the co-operation is good. But their mere presence there could be used as a means of surveillance. So it’s a dilemma right?”
However, Steven Zhou, a journalist living in Toronto, also expressed caution in an interview with Ricochet.
“The more paranoid people will say this is increased police presence for other purposes, and they’re [the TPS] using this for a reason to do more policing and spying of the mainstream community. But I don’t think that’s needed because CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service], I’m sure, has people within every mosque already.”
For well over a decade, Muslim communities in Canada have suspected that CSIS is spying on them. In 2010, the national president of the Canadian Arab Federation, Khaled Mouammar, publicly noted that he had received dozens of complaints regarding CSIS agents targeting Muslims and offering them cash to act as informants.
These suspicions have been voiced by numerous individuals and groups over the years. CSIS has repeatedly said it does not pay informants to spy on mosques, but it does pay informants to surveil individuals.
In a 2010 Canoe article, Mouammar claimed, “There are CSIS informants in all the main mosques in the Toronto area.” He added that “the information they provide leads to a lot of baseless investigations” and “families have been ruined by their allegations.”
Zhou believes wariness among Muslims toward police efforts is legitimate.
“When you say ‘police presence,’ there is a history of mistrust between the police and Muslims that necessitates suspicion. That’s a fair assessment. How much that history of mistrust impinges on this specific effort, which I think is probably limited, is questionable.”
Muhammad also said he believes this particular instance of increased police presence may not be unique to Muslims because the police would be sent to synagogues and churches if they were the target of hate crimes. Di Tommaso confirmed that these patrols are “not unique to the Muslim community” and said they had also been utilized after Toronto synagogues were vandalized with swastikas in the past.
As such, Muhammad claimed that ultimately the amplified police presence following the Ottawa shooting may not be problematic.
“I don’t see why you should be singling out Muslims in this situation and saying it’s a thing against Muslims. I mean, of course, we have been profiled in the past. We’re profiled at airports and in many situations. But this situation is a little different.”
Zhou’s conclusion on the increased police presence was more apprehensive.
“Let’s say it’s 100 per cent positive. Let’s say the police are being honest. It would be an anomaly.”