City of Edmonton poised to add hate symbols as form of harassment under public places bylaw, could result in $250 fine

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The City of Edmonton is preparing to beef up its rules around hate messaging in public spaces to include non-verbal communication and symbols.

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In its first meeting of the new term, council’s community and public services committee unanimously endorsed changes to the city’s public places bylaw that would forbid harassment through gestures or symbols that target race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. Adding this clause that includes non-verbal communication, such as signage, would close the gap in the bylaw initially approved by the previous council in August that focused specifically on verbal hate.

The bylaw amendment will face a full council vote later this month before it could come into effect. In line with the current harassment rules, the fine would be $250 with increased costs for repeat offenders.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said this addition is a key step in addressing incidents of hate and racism in Edmonton, which he pledged as a main priority during his election campaign following a series of attacks on racialized residents, specifically Muslim women. The motion comes just one week after council unanimously approved the creation of an anti-racism strategy to address hate-based violence .

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Although instances of hate will be addressed on a case-by-case basis after complaints are brought forward to the city, Sohi called on bylaw officers to ensure the perspective of minority communities are taken into account when deciding on punishments. He referenced the use of tiki torches at a Downtown rally in the spring as something that may not be an issue to some but is deeply concerning to minority groups.

“When I saw tiki torch marches in Downtown, for me as a racialized person, it was a terrifying thing to see. But I also heard from my other colleagues who are not from racialized backgrounds and their impression on that was different until I engaged with them in a dialogue on why it conveyed a different message to me,” Sohi said. “As you make the determination on what is a hate symbol or not, I hope there is the possibility to engage with organizations like the anti-racism advisory committee and other organizations to bring that BIPOC perspective to determine what kind of impression that symbol gives to people as opposed to that being made internally.”

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Although all were in support of the intent, some councillors offered concerns on how it would be enforced without a set determination of what symbols would be considered an offence and that instead each case will be studied individually based on complaints made and public perception. Some also questioned the restrictiveness of the bylaw, with the city only having the authority over public places and not private property or electronically through social media.

“That is going to be the challenge. This bylaw is limited to public places and a lot of what occurs on the internet and social media aren’t necessarily going to be in that public place,” city legal counsel Nancy Jacobsen said. “It is the limits of municipal jurisdiction that are going to be challenging but this still certainly gives us another tool where we need it.”

Councillors will get an update on the status of the 14 community safety and well-being task force recommendations next Monday.

duscook@postmedia.com

twitter.com/dustin_cook3

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