Disproportionate Harm: Hate Crime in Canada


Hate Crime

Hate crimes are crimes in which the offender is motivated by a characteristic of the victim that identifies the victim as a member of a group towards which the offender feels some animosity. The problem of hate crime is a truly global phenomenon and Canada is no exception.

Because they are directed both at a group and an individual victim, hate crimes carry an element of harm that is not present in other kinds of offending. For this reason, many jurisdictions have passed legislation increasing the penalties for crimes motivated by hate. The Sentencing Reform Bill (C-41) in Canada is an example of this kind of statute. Similar legislation is to be found in the United States and other countries.

The importance of the problem of hate crime is apparent from the vigorous response that has emerged, both in terms of private organizations (such as B'nai Brith) and the policing community. Specialized hate crime units have been created in many (but by no means all) police services across Canada. As well, several police services are now collecting information on the incidence of crimes motivated by hate. Nevertheless, it is clear that many hate crimes are, for a variety of reasons, still not reported to the police. In fact, it is likely that hate crimes are among the most under-reported forms of criminality.

Purpose and Scope of Report

To date, there has been little systematic research in Canada upon the nature and incidence of hate crimes. The purpose of the present report was to collect together in a single document information on the incidence of hate crimes. A special request was sent by the Department of Justice Canada to a number of different sources, including police forces across Canada and B'nai Brith. These data are summarized in this document, along with additional information relating to hate-motivated incidents involving gays and lesbians.

Classification of Hate Crimes

One of the difficulties surrounding the collection of hate crimes concerns the definition of what constitutes a hate-motivated incident. There is considerable variability in the definitions in use by police services across Canada. Some police forces (such as the Metropolitan Toronto Police Service) use what might be termed an exclusive definition. That is, a crime is only classified as a hate crime when, in the opinion of the investigating officer, the act was "based solely upon the victim's race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, sexual orientation gender or disability". Other police agencies such as the Ottawa Police Service use a lower threshold. According to this broader definition, a hate-motivated crime is one that was motivated "in whole or in part, by a bias". The matter of definition is critical; if the exclusive definition is used, then a much smaller number of incidents are likely to be classified as hate crimes. This observation is borne out by statistics both in Canada and elsewhere: jurisdictions adhering to an exclusive definition report significantly lower rates of hate crimes.

Under-reporting Incidents of Hate Crime

A central deficiency of all criminal justice statistics is that a proportion of incidents are never reported to the police. This proportion (known as the "Dark Figure" of crime varies from offence to offence, and may run as high as 95 percent for certain crimes. There are several reasons to believe that the percentage of offences that are not reported to the police may be particularly high for hate crimes. First, victims may fear additional victimization. Second, victims of racially-motivated hate crimes may well be apprehensive that the criminal justice system will not take their reports seriously enough. Third, the sensitive nature of hate crimes directed at gays or lesbians may result in the victim staying away from the police for fear of stigmatization on the basis of homophobia.

Hate Crime Patterns in Other Jurisdictions

Hate crime statistics have been collected on a systematic basis in the United States since 1990, when Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act, which requires states to collect such data and submit them to the federal government. In the most recent year for which data are available, there were almost 9,000 hate crime incidents recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This total clearly represents but a small fraction of hate crimes actually committed. The most frequently occurring offence was threatening, followed by vandalism and assaults. Racial minorities were the most frequent target of hate motivated crimes, accounting for almost two-thirds of incidents recorded. The next most frequent target category was religious groups. Almost all the incidents in this category were anti-semitic in nature. There was a clear interaction between the nature of the offence and the nature of the target. Hate crimes directed against individuals on the basis of race or ethnicity were more likely to be crimes of violence, while anti-semitic incidents were more likely to be crimes of property.

British data derived from the British Crime Survey (and published by the Home Office) provide a good indication of the magnitude of the problem. Drawing upon a victimization survey (and not just reports recorded by the police), a recent report suggests that over 100,000 racially-motivated crimes occur every year in Britain. This does not include hate crimes directed at gays or lesbians, or incidents of anti-semitism. If these additional forms of hate crime were added, the total would be much higher.

Hate Crime Trends in Canada

As noted above, this report summarizes data from three sources: several police services across the country who responded to a data request from the Department of Justice Canada, B'nai Brith of Canada and two groups representing the gay and lesbian communities in Toronto and Montreal.

Police Forces

The majority of hate crimes recorded by the police across Canada were directed against racial minorities. Sixty-one percent of all hate crime incidents were directed against racial minorities, 23 percent against religious minorities, 11 percent against gays or lesbians and 5 percent against ethnic minorities. This breakdown is remarkably similar to the breakdown of targets in the United States, where 63 percent of incidents were directed at racial minorities. This suggests that there are strong parallels between the nature of hate crime in Canada and elsewhere.

B'nai Brith

The League of Human Rights of B'nai Brith Canada has compiled data on anti-semitic incidents for over a decade now. These data are published in the annual "Audit of Anti-semitic Incidents". Since the same definitions and incidents have been used over this period, this database constitutes a unique historical record of hate crimes in Canada. Incidents in the data-base are classified as vandalism or harassment. In 1994, there were 290 incidents of anti-semitism recorded by the League for Human Rights. These data provide convincing evidence that there has been an increase in anti-semitic activity on Canada in recent years. This represents an almost 50 percent increase in the number reported since 1992. Most incidents occurred in cities: Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto accounted for over 80 percent of all incidents, with exactly half occurring in Toronto alone.

Gay and Lesbian Community Groups

Research in other countries such as the United States has clearly shown that gays and lesbians are a principal target for hate crimes. In addition, there are several reasons to believe that members of the gay community are less likely than any other victimized group to report incidents to the police. For this reason, police statistics are likely to seriously underestimate the extent of the threat to the gay community in Canada. Analysis of calls to a hotline in Toronto run by the 519 Church Street Community Centre shows that a high incidence of hate-motivated incidents directed at gays and lesbians involve physical assault. Only a minority of incidents reported to the hotline had been reported to the police. Data from this same source suggest that hate crimes directed at this group are also less likely to result in a conviction than other crimes. Similar trends emerged from an analysis of statistics from a shorter period in Montreal. These were reported by the Table de Concertation des lesbiennes et des gais du Grand Montreal.

Estimates of Number of Hate Crimes Committed

Although the exercise must remain rather speculative, an attempt was made to estimate the number of hate crimes committed annually in Canada, not just the number of incidents recorded by the police. Using the data from Ottawa in 1994, the following extrapolation was made. In that year, 211 founded hate crimes were recorded by the Ottawa police. Assuming that only one-third of all incidents are ever reported to the police, this suggests that 633 incidents were actually committed. Since Ottawa accounts for 7 percent of the total Criminal Code offences for the major urban centres in Canada, this implies that the total number of hate crimes committed in nine urban centres (Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver) is approximately 60,000. This estimate is consistent with estimates of the incidence of hate crimes in other jurisdictions. For example, the British Home Office has estimated that there are approximately 100,000 hate crimes committed annually in England and Wales. This British estimate is based upon a single form of hate crime (racially-motivated crimes), while the estimate for Canada's urban centres includes other forms of hate crime such as crimes motivated by hatred based on religion, ethnicity and ethnic orientation.

Better Statistics

In order to provide an effective response to the problem of hate crimes, the criminal justice system needs adequate statistics. This is important from two perspectives. First, because the general public are probably unaware of the scope of the problem, hate crimes have remained, to a large extent, hidden from public view. Second, the system needs to know more about the nature and distribution of hate crimes so that criminal justice as well as community resources can be most effectively employed. At the present, as can be seen from this report, we do not have adequate information about hate crimes in Canada.

Several options were reviewed for improving the comprehensiveness of hate crime statistics. One possibility would be simply to encourage more police forces and special interest groups to gather such data. This seems to be a weak option. Sufficient variability exists at the present time in terms of the definition of hate crimes that a uniform, national approach is justified. This could consist of passage of a Hate Crime Statistics Act (such as the one passed by the federal government in the United States), or it might simply involve modifying the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey so that hate motivation would be included in the information recorded by the police officer.


An effective criminal justice response to hate crimes involves a number of important elements. However, nothing is more critical than having an accurate idea of the nature and extent of the problem. This can only come about if a greater effort is made to collect comprehensive statistics. At the present, Canada lags far behind other nations in this regard.

This report represents the first, small step towards documenting the incidence of this pernicious crime which by its very nature strikes at the heart of a multicultural society.

Summary of Recommendations

The following Recommendations were made to improve our knowledge of, and response to, hate crimes in Canada:

  1. Further consideration should be given to the Hate Crime Statistics Act (Bill C-455) which received first reading in Parliament in 1993, but which has not been reviewed further.
  2. A uniform definition of a hate crime should be developed in consultation with all stakeholders in the area across Canada.
  3. Consistent with the practice in other countries, the definition of a hate crime should not require the exclusive motivation threshold currently used in some jurisdictions. Hate crimes should be defined as crimes in which hatred or bias was in whole or in part responsible for the commission of the offence.
  4. In order to protect the privacy of individual victims, the definition of a hate crime should refer to the "actual or perceived" group status of the hate crime target.
  5. Uniform guidelines should be developed to permit greater consistency in the application of the definition of what constitutes a hate crime.
  6. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics should adopt the collection of hate crime statistics as a priority for future information requirements in the area of criminal justice.
  7. Questions relating to hate motivation should be added to the data elements currently collected on the revised Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) survey (UCR II).
  8. In order to estimate the true extent to which hate crimes are under-reported, questions about hate motivation should also be added to the General Social Survey (GSS) victimization survey.
  9. Consideration should be given to increasing the amount of resources devoted to research into the nature and origins of hate crimes in Canada.
  10. Consideration should be given to the creation of new criminal offences which would better reflect the true nature of hate crimes. One such offence could be defined as the desecration of property which carries religious significance. These offences would replace the application of mischief as a charge in cases of hate crimes directed at synagogues and other places of religious worship.
  11. Greater efforts need to be made to increase visibility of the criminal justice response to hate crimes. This includes reaching out to the groups that have been the target of hate motivated crimes, particularly the gay and lesbian communities.
  12. Specialized Hate Crime Units should be created in all major urban police forces across the country. These units should be composed of officers with special training in the area of crimes motivated by hate or bias. In addition to the conventional police functions of responding to incidents, and gathering evidence, these units should also participate in various police-community activities. The experience of the Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal police services shows how an effective Hate Crime Unit should function.
  13. Hate crime units in police agencies should be constantly in contact with the populations most at risk for hate crimes. This suggests periodic meetings with these groups to ensure that these communities are aware of hate crime trends, and that the police are responsive to the communities that they serve and protect.
  14. In light of the extremely low reporting rate, and the disproportionately high rate of violence in hate crimes directed at gays and lesbians, a principal focus of any hate crime strategy should be upon the gay/lesbian communities in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
  15. In order to promote greater public awareness of this form of criminality, an effort should be made to convey information about hate crime motivation to the news media, so that this material will be communicated to the public.
  16. When an individual receives an enhanced sentence for a hate-motivated crime, this ground for aggravation should be noted in the reasons for sentence, and should be part of the offender information system which is communicated to federal or provincial correctional authorities.
  17. Confronting hate crimes is not the unique jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. As with other socio-legal issues such as drinking and driving and domestic violence, a general social response is necessary. Accordingly, a greater effort should be made to educate the public about this form of criminal behaviour. A major focus of any such initiative should be directed at schools.
  18. Community groups should take an active role in educating their members about ways to respond to hate crimes when they occur. The activities of the 519 Church St. Community Centre provide a good role model in this regard.
  19. Community surveys should be conducted of the populations most at risk in order to gauge the extent to which they have confidence in the criminal justice response to reports of hate crimes.
  20. Consideration should be given to a national police training workshop, which would involve police officers from all hate crime units across the country, in order to promote a uniform police response to the investigation of hate crimes.