With a rare approval from the Attorney-General's office, Peel Regional Police have charged a Mississauga resident with a hate-motivated crime in relation to several reported incidents of material published online targeting Muslims.
Police said that after a lengthy investigation, 45-year-old Kevin Johnston faces one count of wilful promotion of hatred for incidents occurring over the past five months. The charge, which police had to receive permission from the Attorney-General of Ontario to lay, could result in up to two years in prison.
"There were a number of complaints with regards to different incidents, so there is no one specific incident that the charge was laid because of," Sergeant Josh Colley said, adding that specifics on the incidents could not be disclosed in case it jeopardizes the investigation or court proceedings.
Mr. Johnston has posted hundreds of videos across various social media platforms and on his far-right website, Freedom Report, that mostly focus on denigrating Muslims and arguing that Islam is a threat to the country. He protested against the federal anti-Islamophobia motion, M-103 and in one video, accused Mississauga-Erin Mills MP Iqra Khalid of being a "terrorist" who could be shot by a "Canadian patriot."
Several months ago, he posted an inflammatory video encouraging students to "sneak a camera" into the Muslim Friday prayer service at schools in the Peel Region, adding that if any hate speech is found in the video, he would provide that student with a $1,000 reward. The Peel District School Board condemned the video and cautioned its staff and students to be vigilant. The school board expressed concern for Muslim students who may feel targeted. On Monday, the board said they would not comment on the court proceedings.
Tensions between the Peel board and some members of the community ran high, after anti-Muslim groups criticized schools for providing spaces for Muslim students to hold congregational prayers on Fridays.
In March, police intervened in a school board meeting after protesters shouted anti-Muslim rhetoric, tore pages from a Koran and stepped on the religious text.
Protesters argued a secular school system should not accommodate religion, with some specifically upset over providing these resources to Muslim students. But Ontario school boards are legally required to provide religious accommodations upon request. Despite the fact that Muslim students have been praying in public schools for decades, Mr. Johnston was upset over the accommodation and sought to put an end to it.
The Muslim community felt relieved after the charges were announced, said Rabia Khedr, executive director of the Muslim Council of Peel, adding many families felt deeply disturbed by Mr. Johnston's actions. "We have been dealing with the rise of Islamophobia and such instances in question from a particular individual for several months now," she said. "It was certainly taking a toll on people, fostering a sense of exclusion and making people feel they weren't welcome – that they don't belong."
In the criminal code, the charge laid against Mr. Johnston is defined as, "Everyone who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group."
The threshold for charging someone with hate speech is extremely high, said Richard Moon, a hate-speech expert and law professor at the University of Windsor, adding very few people have ever been charged, and even fewer have been convicted.
He said attorneys-general are sometimes reluctant to give their consent in these cases for a number of reasons, including if it seems like a hard case to prove or if there is concern that prosecuting someone might give them a platform to further promote their hate speech. "Clearly someone advising the Attorney-General in this case has a made a determination that this case has real merit and that there is a high likelihood of it succeeding in their view," he said. "It's important to realize how exceptional these prosecutions really are; we have these laws in the books but there are very few occasions in which any kind of case under these provisions proceeds.
"There is also not a lot of case law or prosecutions of anti-Muslim speech and so it's interesting for a case like this to come forward."