A Toronto man has been charged with public incitement of hatred after police allege he held a “terrorist flag” during a demonstration last weekend.
Police say the 41-year-old man allegedly waved a flag of “an organization listed as a terrorist group by Public Safety Canada” while marching through the city’s downtown on Sunday.
Police have not confirmed what the flag depicted or what group it was associated with.
Speaking at a Toronto Police Services Board meeting Thursday, police Chief Myron Demkiw said he would “not be complicit in providing a platform to both acknowledge or promote the hateful ideology.”
Demkiw called the charge “unprecedented,” noting the “very high threshold” to charge anyone with a hate propaganda offence.
“We’re not putting up with this kind of hateful conduct,” he added at a news conference Thursday. “This type of allegation points to an extremist, hateful perspective that we do not welcome in the city.”
The man is set to appear in court in Toronto on Feb. 23.
Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, vice president GTA of the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said she hopes the public incitement of charge is the “first of many laid” against people “promoting violence” against others in Canada.
“We hope that other police services will take note,” she said.
Anas Sial, the lead of the grassroots organization Action for Palestine, said one person’s alleged display of a terrorist organization’s flag shouldn’t be associated with Palestinian flags. Since police haven’t disclosed what the flag was, he says the organization can’t properly comment on it.
“If they’re not disclosing what it is, I don’t even know what they’re talking about,” said Sial. “There’s no correlation until we have further understanding of what it is and who this individual was,”
According to the force’s website, Toronto police consider a hate crime to be a criminal offence committed against a person or property motivated at least in part by the offender’s bias, prejudice or hate against an identifiable group. If a person is charged and convicted of that offence, a judge will take into consideration hate as an aggravating factor when imposing a sentence.
The chief said Toronto has seen more protests since the start of the Israel-Hamas war than any other city in Canada — 308 so far — and that those demonstrations have escalated recently.s
Demkiw also announced Thursday that demonstrations on the Avenue Road bridge over Highway 401 will now be prohibited as they pose a threat to public safety and have made many in the surrounding Jewish community feel intimidated.
When asked, the chief did not rule out the possibility of also limiting protests outside Jewish-owned businesses such as restaurants.
Demkiw said people who ignore the ban can expect to be arrested “if necessary” and any activities that take place on the bridge will be investigated “with a criminal lens.”
Kirzner-Roberts said CIJA is thankful to Toronto police and Demkiw for their decision to prohibit protests on Avenue Road bridge.
“These daily incidents from these protesters was, you know, making the Jewish feel community feel unsafe,” said Kirzner-Roberts.
But one group that’s been actively protesting on the highway overpass for weeks says their intention is to raise awareness — not target Jewish Canadians.
Sial, of Action for Palestine, called the prohibition “an infringement of our Charter rights, our freedom of speech, our freedom to protest [and] our free to demonstration,” and says the group plans to take legal action against the police.
The group protested there weeks ago after Sial says a billboard company took down billboards on the violence in Gaza and refunded them.
“We’re trying to express our voice,” said Sial, adding he hopes police reconsider the decision and instead monitor the highway protests when they happen.
Demkiw also provided the board with the latest details on the force’s hate crime statistics, saying hate crime calls to Toronto police were down in December.
Demkiw said there were 10 reported hate crimes last month compared to 48 in November. The shift is the first to come after the force raised alarm about the sustained spike in calls starting Oct. 7.
He called the recent figures “good news” but warned antisemitic incidents are still a major concern, representing a majority of all hate crimes in 2023. There were 132 total incidents reported compared to 65 in 2022.
Police have previously noted that hate crimes often go underreported out of fear of retaliation.
This year, there have been two antisemitic hate crimes reported so far, one of which was a suspected arson attack against a Jewish-owned deli store in North York. To date, the force has also received 145 reports from people using the recently launched hate graffiti web form, police said.
Toronto police’s hate crime unit is investigating a fire at a Jewish-owned grocery store on Wednesday that was also spray-painted with the words “Free Palestine.” Police Chief Myron Demkiw told reporters Thursday “no stone would be left unturned” as they look for suspects.
“Let me be clear and unequivocal, our commitment to keeping our city’s Jewish community safe is unwavering,” Demkiw said. “I will say this once again and as many times as necessary: violence and hate will not be tolerated.”
Demkiw and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met on Wednesday to discuss the recent and “alarming” increase in antisemitic incidents and what more can be done to keep Jewish Canadians safe. The meeting came after two Toronto councillors asked the federal government for help fighting antisemitism in Toronto.
“As partners, we’ll continue to do what is necessary to tackle hatred in all its forms,” Trudeau said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
The number of reported hate crimes was up 42 per cent in 2023 from the previous year — 353 reports compared with 248, police said. From October to December, the force received an average of 190 hate-related calls, up from the average of 47 for all the months prior in 2023.
Demkiw notes the second highest increase was in reported LGBTQ+ hate crimes, going up from 40 in 2022 to 66 in 2023. There were also 35 reported anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab hate crimes last year compared to 12 the year prior, making it the third highest category.
From Oct. 7, 2023 to Jan. 10, 2024, the force said its arrested 54 people, resulting in 117 hate crime-related charges. The most common were mischief, assault and uttering threats.