WINNIPEG — Two Grade 10 students at a southwest Winnipeg high school are now facing assault and hate charges as a result of threatening a Jewish girl at the school with a lighter and singing her hair.
The incident took place Nov. 18 but police weren’t informed until a week later. Initially just one student was charged in the incident.
The alleged assault with accompanying antisemitic remarks took place at Oak Park High School in Charleswood. While Charleswood in the past has not been known as a Jewish neighbourhood, in recent years, younger Jewish families – especially immigrant families from South America and Israel – have been moving into the area. The victim, however, is Canadian-born. (None of the students involved can be identified because of their age.)
Winnipeg Police Service spokesperson Jason Michalyshen said police are recommending to the Crown that both 15-year-old boys be charged with assault with a weapon and with public incitement of hatred.
“We expect the Crown to officially lay the charges within a couple of weeks,” Michalyshen said. “Both boys were holding lighters. While the second boy may not have used his lighter on the girl, he didn’t try to stop his friend.”
Michalyshen said the first boy to be arrested was released from custody after promising to appear in court, while the second boy has been spoken to.
“We are taking this investigation very seriously,” Michalyshen said.
The alleged attack has shocked the community, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
“This is such a rare incident,” said Shelley Faintuch, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s community affairs director. “It’s a great shock. We hear about racial slurs and graffiti from time to time, but not this kind of thing. Winnipeg is such a diverse city.”
The student who committed the assault reportedly has skinhead and neo-Nazi associations. He has also reportedly been bragging about his actions on Facebook, where he has garnered some support and much more criticism.
Faintuch said that other Jewish students at the school have contacted her since the incident. (The Jewish student population at the school is small, but the exact number isn’t available.)
Lawrence Lussier, the superintendent of Pembina Trails School Division, where Oak Park is located, said the school has about 1,000 students, who hail from a wide variety of backgrounds. There is a French immersion track for students from grades 9 through 12 and a grade 10-to-12 English track.
“Winnipeg has received a lot of immigrants in recent years, and the aboriginal population in the city is also growing,” he said. “Oak Park’s student body reflects that diversity.”
The male student who allegedly committed the assault is relatively new to the school division, Lussier said. He began attending Oak Park in September.
“He came from another school division,” Lussier said. “We haven’t had much experience with him. We only learned about his neo-Nazi associations from media sources after the fact. There is some evidence of that on his Facebook page.”
The first teen was suspended and has left the school, while the second student who was charged has been suspended from the school as well.
The Jewish girl is back at school.
Faintuch has approached the school, on behalf of the federation about helping its administration develop a plan to respond to the incident. “The principal is very serious about dealing with this,” she said.
Lussier commended Faintuch for her help. “We really appreciate having Shelley’s support,” he said. “It’s good for the girl’s family, as well as other concerned students. When something like this happens, it arouses some fear. It’s important that we respond and reinforce the values of respect, acceptance and inclusiveness that we consider important.”
He added that Faintuch has suggested a program called “Fighting Anti-Semitism Together” (FAST), which was designed for middle school students, but could be adapted for older students.
“We are looking into introducing FAST to Oak Park School,” Lussier said. “We think it might help our kids.”