Hamilton is getting a reputation for hate, and critics say the city hasn't done enough to fight it


This story is part of Exposing Hate, an ongoing series examining the nature of hate in Canada: how it manifests, spreads and thrives and how Canadian institutions, law enforcement and individuals are dealing with it. 

It's a bright Saturday morning on the Hamilton city hall forecourt, and the crowd is split down the middle. Members of the yellow vest movement and far-right groups stand on one side. Rainbow flag wavers with signs displaying slogans like "Diversity is strength" are on the other.

"You all hang with Nazis," a man with the rainbow flag bearers shouts at a woman standing with the yellow vests. "When you hang out with Nazis, you become one."

"We want to see Canada free and great again the way it used to be," the woman hollers back. "Jesus is the Lord over Canada."

This could be any Saturday morning in any city in Canada before too long, says Tina Fetner, a McMaster University researcher who studies social movements.

"It's very important for Hamilton to be a cautionary tale for other cities," Fetner said. "I'm very certain that this is going to be knocking at the door of other cities across Canada. This is something that is a larger phenomenon than Hamilton. It's happening all over Western Europe and North America."

She and others see Hamilton, where confrontations like this have been escalating for months, as an example of what not to do to when dealing with the tension and violence that have accompanied such demonstrations.

Members of the yellow vest movement — which started in France to oppose rising fuel prices but expanded to include far-right grievances over issues such as immigration and accommodation of minorities — gathered weekly in front of city hall for six months before city council voted in June to look at how to handle the demonstrations.

At their height, the protests have included as many as 40 people. They've drawn members of better-known far-right groups such as Soldiers of Odin, Wolves of Odin and Proud Boys to the Ontario city of 530,000 people 70 kilometres southwest of Toronto. Some weekends, only a half dozen regulars assemble. Self-described white nationalist Paul Fromm has been spotted at the protests.

Hamilton had Canada's highest per-capita rate of hate crimes for the last three out of five years, according to Statistics Canada. There were 17.1 hate incidents per 100,000 people, with those incidents ranging from graffiti to assault. 

So far this year, there have been 76 hate crimes or incidents, which is four per cent less than this time last year, according to the city's hate crimes unit. Of those, 73 were classified as "incidents," meaning the crimes displayed some hate or bias, but police haven't determined if that was a motivating factor. In the other three, police have determined that hate was a motivating factor.

It's hard to know why Hamilton's statistics are so high, but the answer might partially lie in the definition of hate crime itself. 

Police departments across the country use varying definitions of "hate crime," and officers use that definition to determine which crimes to include in the statistics. 

Hamilton Police Service's definition is comprehensive, calling a hate crime an offence that "was motivated solely, or in part, because of bias or prejudice." Other police services, such as the Quebec provincial police, have no definition at all. 

For some Hamilton residents, hate toward minorities and marginalized groups is, in the words of LGBTQ resident and activist Graham Crawford, "a civic crisis."