Toronto is seeking clarification about hate rallies held on city property.
A city councillor’s inquiry about whether police and municipal officials can prohibit hateful protests on government property, including the annual Al-Quds Day demonstration, has been referred to the city manager for further study.
Ward 10 Councillor James Pasternak told The CJN that he is seeking “a legal framework” for future rallies of Islamic and far-right extremists that take place on city property, to make sure that Toronto “is not enabling hate rallies and racist marches by either neo-Nazis, white supremacists or Al-Quds Day supporters. We want to make sure that we have no part of that.”
Toronto’s executive committee voted Nov. 28 to refer Pasternak’s concerns to the city manager, who should consult with legal experts, police, Ontario’s attorney general and human rights groups on the city’s legal responsibility, “with respect to preventing public gatherings that promote hate and incite discrimination from taking place on the city’s property.”
Two councillors, Paul Ainslie and Mary-Margaret McMahon, voted against Pasternak’s proposal. Mayor John Tory spoke in favour of it.
Al-Quds Day demonstrations in Toronto have been marked by overtly anti-Semitic language and threats of violence against Jews and Israelis. The annual event was started by Iran in 1979, to call for the “liberation” of Jerusalem.
Pasternak received statements of support from B’nai Brith Canada and the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But he also has his critics. Pasternak’s proposal “would impose prior restraint,” warned the Ontario Civil Liberties Association, in a letter to city council. “The government must never be an agent of pre-emptive censorship by physical force.”
In a letter sent to the city clerk in September, Pasternak noted that there has been “a growing trend of hate-infested rallies being held in public spaces, such as the anti-Semitic Al-Quds Day rally in Toronto, and there have been threats to host white supremacist and neo-Nazi rallies in Toronto similar to those in the United States.”
He added that the annual Al-Quds protest has taken place outside Queen’s Park “for the past several years,” and features speakers making anti-Semitic and anti-Christian remarks, as well as “spreading hatred, inciting violence and supporting terrorist organizations such as Hamas.”
He said that this year’s rally, which was held in June, did not receive a permit from the province or the city, “However, the event proceeded.” He asked what police and government could do in the future, to head off such rallies.
In a reply to Pasternak, the Toronto Police Services said its special events section is notified about most events, including demonstrations, but that notification is not mandatory.
If a hate crime is reported, police conduct an investigation, they said.
In its reply to Pasternak’s concerns, the city said it “will not tolerate, ignore or condone illegal discrimination or harassment, including any rally that incites hatred and/or violence against groups or persons,” and that it is committed to “promoting respectful conduct, tolerance and inclusion when permitting the use of public space and city facilities.”
Groups wishing to obtain a permit to use municipal facilities must also sign a declaration of compliance with anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws, including Ontario’s Human Rights Code, the city pointed out.
The CJN learned last summer that this year’s Al-Quds Day protest, which resulted in a hate crimes complaint to police, took place on the so-called north lawn of Queen’s Park, which is city property.
Queen’s Park had denied that the rally took place on provincial lands. But Pasternak disputed this, saying that while the rally began on city property, participants later paraded to the south lawn of Queen’s Park.
“They did traverse the two properties and I find that very disturbing,” he said.
Pasternak said further study of the issue is needed, because a group wishing to demonstrate on city property must apply for a permit and adhere to the city’s anti-discrimination policy.
“There is no way Al-Quds or the white supremacists or the neo-Nazis would ever qualify for a legitimate permit under that policy,” Pasternak said. “So the question is: What if they sign the policy and then violate it? What if they just hold a rally without signing anything? What are our legal powers?”
The city manager is requested to report back to the executive committee later next year.