Later, Haters: What is a hate crime?

Photograph by Duncan Cumming/Flickr

Photograph by Duncan Cumming/Flickr

By Navneet Alang

Here in 2016, in the dreamy era of Trudeaumania Part 2, the remarkable election campaign that led to this new Liberal government can seem far away.

Particularly seen through the haze of Donald Trump’s worrying and remarkably brazen xenophobia, it can be easy to forget the alarming tone of Canada’s most recent federal race—especially the Conservatives’ fanning the flames of Islamophobia in a last-ditch attempt to hold on to power.

Unfortunately, the cloud of prejudice has lingered here in Canada. The confluence of Harper, Trump, the most recent Paris attacks, and the Syrian refugee crisis seems to have fostered a climate that contributes to increasingly visible hate crimes — attacks in which someone is targeted because of their identity.

In the last few months, stories of Islamophobic and other hate crimes have grown — from assaults on Muslim women, to the vandalization of mosques, to the recent attack in Vancouver, in which Syrian refugees were pepper sprayed by a passerby.

Of course, in Canada we have hate crime provisions in the Criminal Code, specific laws meant to address the character of crimes motivated by hate.

In them, we embody a set of principles: on the one hand, a set of social norms about what is and is not acceptable; and on the other hand, who we do and do not deem worthy of protection.

Defining hate

What exactly is a hate crime? In Canada, there are four specific offences that count as hate crimes: advocating genocide; public incitement of hatred; willful promotion of hatred; and mischief motivated by hate in relation to religious property.

In addition, any other crime such as assault or vandalism that can reasonably be said to have been motivated by hatred of a group is also counted as a hate crime.

More generally, a Justice Department report suggested this definition for a hate crime: “A bias-motivated crime is a crime in which the offender is motivated by a characteristic of the victim that identifies the victim as a member of some group towards which the offender feels some animosity.”

All these laws focus explicitly on ethnicity, race, religion and sexual orientation. However, the exact purpose of such laws is less precise.

The existence of hate crimes in the criminal code seems to serve a variety of functions—tracking the existence of bias, deterrence and social signalling among them.

Yet with those ideas comes the notion that being a minority is an experience that often hinges on where the public and private interact — that hate crime legislation is in fact less about protecting people, than marking out which values a society wishes to foster.

A public signal

News of a hate crime is often chilling. Though any reports of violent crime or harassment are worrisome, there’s something about violence based on identity that chips away at a feeling of safety.

In part, this is because news often operates through metonymy — that is, where a part of a thing is meant to stand for a whole. When the nightly newscast tells of a break-in or sexual assault, it’s meant to inform, but also to stand for “this is what is going on in the city right now.”

In a similar way, hate crimes take on a broader significance than other forms of violence: The very fact they are classified as such ends up evoking the idea of a simmering hatred in society, unleashed in a particular instance. The part is the crime, and the whole is the existence of prejudice.

Hate crimes are thus a kind of public signal, whether or not they are meant to be. Late last year, after Islamophobic incidents on the TTC, some Torontonians responded with the hashtag #illridewithyou to say to Muslim citizens that they would accompany them on transit for safety. It was a warm act of civic fraternity, but also a kind of public signalling to counter the looming sense that the city was filled with bigots.

In the same sense, the mere existence of a distinction between a “normal” assault and a hate crime in our criminal code is also an act of social signalling: a way of saying that violence motivated by hatred against ethnic, religious or sexual minorities is not tolerated. By invoking the public institution of law to recognize violence specifically based in systemic bias, the legal system signals safety. Instead of the image of a minority peering uneasily out the window, there is the countervailing sense that “the system” is aware of how disturbing the effects of hate can be.

In that sense, laws against hate crimes are necessary for a tolerant society. Yet, because they are so explicitly about messaging as well as their practical deterrent effects, they also become signs of where a society stands with regard to prejudice.


Case in point: neither the criminal code nor police departments include gender identity in their definitions of hate crimes — this despite the fact that trans people are far more likely than the general population to suffer violence.

Though Bill C-279 sought to add a ban on discrimination based on gender identity to the Charter of Rights, it was stymied by the Senate, and is now in limbo. What is and is not officially a hate crime is significant for more than the intricacies of the law.

There is also the looming question of why gender-based violence is not technically considered a hate crime. After all, gender is for many the most obvious identity category; given the sheer scope of violence against women in Canadian society, it seems remarkable. Little has been said about it, but one gets the sense that a very political sense of pragmatics may be at play: that if gender-based violence were a hate crime, Canada’s hate crime statistics would be exponentially higher.

And yet, the most practical reason legislation on hate crimes exists may simply be the tracking involved — akin to the metonymy of how hate crimes law signal values to society at large, statistics give both government and institutions a bird’s-eye view of how wide and deep prejudicial violence is.

Hate crime law is a barometer of hatred and violence — not just in terms of the statistics tracked, or the punishment meted out, but also in terms of who is deemed valuable and worthy of protection.

In that sense, these laws are another kind of signal, another kind of metonymy: of who is considered a legitimate and viable part of the whole that is Canada.