Three women sit at a table with microphones at a Jews say no to Genocide press conference that took place outside of an Indige Chapters bookstore on November 30.
A Jews say no to Genocide press conference that took place outside of an Indige Chapters bookstore on November 30. Credit: World Beyond War Canada / X Credit: World Beyond War Canada / X

Earlier this month, activists stuck posters on the window of an Indigo bookstore in Toronto. The posters, accompanied by splashes of red paint, pointedly satirized Indigo’s founder and CEO Heather Reisman for her support of Israel, accusing her of “Funding Genocide” and calling her the “Chief Occupation Lover.” 

As soon as the posters were discovered on November 10, Toronto Police called the act “hate-motivated,” assigning their Hate Crimes Unit and deploying a spokesperson to allege that “the victim [Reisman] was specifically targeted because they are [or are perceived to be] Jewish.” 

The cops’ antisemitism theory ignores Reisman’s longstanding position on Israel, her links to alleged war criminals, and the millions her HESEG Foundation has raised to support Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. 

Nevertheless, the words “hate crime” – which do not appear in Canada’s Criminal Code – immediately became part of the story. The day of the postering, CTV and CP24 ran the headline “’Vile antisemitic attack:’ Police investigating graffiti targeting Indigo CEO outside downtown Toronto store,” calling the act “the latest in a series of hate-motivated incidents,” and quoting the condemnations of the pro-Israel Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. The piece originally omitted any mention of Reisman’s work in support of Israel and its military, though it was later updated with a brief reference to the HESEG Foundation. 

As the story developed, some publications began to counterpose the hate framing with more sympathetic interpretations. The Toronto Star, after referring to the allegations of antisemitism, quoted the Jews Say No to Genocide’s statement that the postering was “neither anti-semitism nor a hate crime.”

Predictably, Canada’s more right-wing press made no such attempt at nuance, pouring vitriol on the posterers, wholeheartedly embracing the antisemitism angle and pronouncing in one column that “Kristallnacht has come to Toronto,” referring to the Nazi pogrom that had its anniversary the day the posters went up. 

Eleven people have since been arrested in connection with the posters, most during a series of early morning raids on November 22. 

“At 5:30 a.m., seven police officers broke down the door of our home and dragged my partner and I out of bed,” reported York Professor Lesley J. Wood, one of the accused, who herself is Jewish. “We were handcuffed and our house was searched. What were they looking for? They ignored the menorah. They ignored the song sheet from Jews Against Genocide lying on the kitchen table. Instead, they took us to the station and charged us.”

The raids were quite extraordinary for a mischief charge, more typical of a major gun or drug bust. In one of them, police broke a door down only to discover that they had the wrong address. The next day, Toronto Police put out a press release on their “hate-motivated Mischief Over $5000 investigation,” stating that the matter was “being treated as a suspected hate-motivated offence.” 

The accused were initially charged with mischief over $5,000 and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, the latter charge indicating an allegation that the accused worked together. The day of the arrests, protesters gathered in a show of solidarity outside the station where the accused were being held.

On November 30, the Jews Say No to Genocide Coalition mounted another solidarity demonstration outside the Indigo where it all started. Speakers included Dr. Wood and author Naomi Klein, who called on police to drop the charges. 

Instead, later that day, the cops laid the additional charge of criminal harassment against all 11 accused, again describing the charges in a press release

The new charges mark a significant escalation in the police crackdown. Criminal harassment and Mischief Over $5,000 both carry a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. Establishing that the postering constituted harassment of Heather Reisman would require proof, not only that the posters and paint caused the billionaire CEO to fear for her personal safety, but also that this fear was reasonable in the circumstances. 

Amidst the refrains of “hate crime” and “hate-motivated mischief,” the actual nature of the charges has been widely obscured and mischaracterized. 

Contrary to some of the coverage, the Indigo 11 have not been charged with anything hate-related. The Criminal Code does contain certain hate-specific provisions, including prohibitions on the communication of “hate propaganda.” The Code also specifically prohibits hate-motivated mischief, but the provision only applies to property primarily used by an “identifiable group” including places of worship and religious schools, not big box bookstores. 

None of these hate-specific offences has been invoked in this case, though Toronto Police have given vague indications that they may yet lay hate propaganda charges, which require the consent of the Attorney General. 

How, then, does the hate allegation factor into the charges? 

The Criminal Code lists “bias, prejudice or hate” based on race or certain other grounds (not including political persuasion) among a list of factors that impact sentencing. Other factors include the vulnerability of the victim, profit from an offence, employment history, and racial context, to name just a few. These factors do not form part of a charge and are only considered after an accused has been convicted. 

In other words, under the current charges, the allegation that the postering was motivated by hate is legally irrelevant unless and until the accused are found guilty of a crime. If that happens, it will be the Crown’s job, not the cops’, to argue which factors should inform the sentence. Of course, proving racial hatred as a motive would require supporting evidence, the existence of which is not apparent from images of the scene.

In the meantime, the police’s framing of the act as a “hate crime” has had very real ramifications for the accused. The day after the first charges were laid, their names and pictures appeared on the cover of the Toronto Sun next to the words “vile antisemitic vandalism. ” The media narrative, driven on by the police’s public statements, quickly took shape. 

At least three of the accused have faced discipline at work due the charges, including Dr. Wood, who was suspended from York along with two other employees charged alongside her, leading to a walkout by students and faculty on November 28. The suspensions, like the raids, are extreme and unusual given the relatively minor nature of the charges and the absence of any link to the workplace. 

“They’re dragging our names through the mud,” says Dr. Wood, calling the charges “grotesque, Orwellian.” 

The suspensions illustrate the political function of the hate-motivation claim that the cops were so quick to put forward. Extrajudicial punishments like these offer a warning to the Palestine movement and signal the limits of political speech, particularly where it buts up against property rights. In this process of public shaming, the allegation of hatred becomes the driving force rather than an obscure legal detail of a hypothetical sentence. Meanwhile, the crucial distinction between criticism of Israel and the very real phenomenon of antisemitism in Canada is collateral damage from the narrative. 

The Canadian political tumult around Gaza seems unlikely to die down anytime soon, given the recent end to the ceasefire and the ongoing protests in Toronto and across the country. On December 1, activists again took to the Yorkville Indigo, this time staging a “read-in” with Palestinian flags and poetry. Other Palestine activists have been charged in Canada, including three who interrupted the November 13 Scotiabank Giller Prize Gala to protest the bank’s investment in an Israeli arms manufacturer. In Calgary on November 5, police charged an activist with causing a disturbance, alleging a hate motivation, reportedly for leading a chant of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The charges were later withdrawn by the Crown. 

Meanwhile, in Palestine, the bombs keep dropping.