This week Rouba Elmerhebi Fahd, mother of the United Talmud Torah fire bomber, received a sentence of only twelve months probation after having been found guilty in September of being an accessory after the fact in the firebombing. The trial judge qualified the attack on the Jewish school as a terrorist act.
I am by no means a believer in punitive punishment. Much evidence exists that incarceration does little toward rehabilitation. Tough sentences may not even be much in the way of deterrent. But the severity of sentences on terrorist acts do go very much to the character and courage of a society in how it confronts terror.
For Mrs. Fahd to not even receive a sentence of community service, and received what amounts to a suspended sentence for complicity in a terrorist act, is an abomination. Just two week ago convicted race crime perpetrator Azim Ibragimov was given a sentence that amounted to several months for each of his acts. Ibragimov committed three criminal acts motivated by hatred of Jews, including a firebombing of another Jewish school. The sentence given to Rouba Elmerhebi Fahd makes Ibragimov’s term look serious. The judge in the Elmerhebi Fahd case stated that he could understand the actions of a mother seeking to get her son out of the country and “protect” him. I would submit that hers were not the actions of a mother. They were the actions of a co-conspirator
The Ibragimov file
The Ibragimov sentence raises the same stark concerns. What is striking in reading the judgment in the sentencing of 25 year old Azim Ibragimov are the judge’s words. Judge Gilles Cadieux quite rightly characterized Ibragimov’s actions as “racist” and “terrorist acts”. What leaves one disheartened is the light sentence. Yes, we know that headlines have been declaring that the sentence “sends a message” and that it is “exemplary”. But when you consider the evidence, you have to ask yourself “what kind of a message?”
Azim Ibragimov pleaded guilty earlier this year to firebombing the Skver-Toldos Orthodox Jewish Boys School in Outremont in 2006, and attempting to attack the Snowdon YM-YWHA the following year. The actions were not those of a schoolboy. Ibragimov, 25 now, was a grown man when he committed these attempted murders.
His four-year sentence, with credit for time served, means that he will be imprisoned for only 10 months. Ten months for race-motivated crimes that could have resulted in dozens killed. We understand that sentencing parameters involve issues of suasion and rehabilitation, but how will 10 months really demotivate anyone else and rehabilitate Ibragimov?
Ibragimov has shown almost no remorse for what he did. And if he had demonstrated remorse reasonable minds could be forgiven for questioning it. His actions were not isolated. They were part of a consistent pattern of race hate. It wasn’t as if he committed one act and then atoned for it as if it were a youthful indiscretion.
After the school firebombing, Ibragimov pre-meditatedly planned a yet bigger one. The only reason that he failed to inflict carnage at the Y was that his home-made explosive device failed to go off.
Ibragimov was also an all-purpose hater. He didn’t just attempt murder and commit mayhem by physical violence, he also used the power of the pen. Ibragimov also pleaded guilty to uttering threats in the form of letters that claimed the crimes were committed in the name of Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group (so named by the U.S. Congress and the Canadian Parliament) that vows to destroy Israel and set up an Islamic Palestinian state. The letters also hinted there were more incidents to come.
So three acts of race hate get an effective average of three months each. “Racist” and “terrorist” acts get an average of three months each. Almost the same as multiple drunk-driving convictions resulting in bodily harm. Is that the equivalency our society is trying to demonstrate?
Even the staunchest opponent of incarceration as a means of punishment and rehabilitation should blink twice at this one. A concerted, pre-meditated series of race-motivated crimes perpetrated by an adult gets 10 months! Not even close to what is required. The sentence trivializes the crimes and sends nothing but the most feckless message.
The Raeburn question
But race crimes are not always perpetrated by civilians. Sometimes they are done by the authorities. And visible minorities are perhaps more victimized than “invisible” religious minorities. In November 2004 Dollard des Ormeaux resident Gemma Raeburn and two friends, Peter Charles and Frederick Peters, were moving items from her garage into her home. Following a call from a neighbor, six armed Montreal police officers showed up accusing the three of robbing the house. The only crime they had committed was that they were black.
The neighbor who had called the police was a 17 year old who said that people with “black things” on their faces were committing a robbery. What happened after the police arrived turned farce to tragedy. When Raeburn asked one of the officers if they would have pulled their guns on white people, the officer responded that “…bullets don’t see color…”.When Peters told one of the other officers that police in his native Grenada did not behave in a similar fashion the officer snapped back “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to your country?”
Raeburn and her friends brought complaints to the Police Ethics Committee. The Committee suspended the two officers. The officers took their case to Quebec Court and their appeal was successful. The Court ordered the suspension of the first officer wiped off his record and the second had the suspension converted into a reprimand. Gemma Raeburn’s reaction said it all. “If we can’t even recognize racism, how are we ever going to cure it?”
The Bishop assault
The story of Courtney Bishop is also instructive in the problems with authority reacting with prejudiced. Mr. Bishop, a citizen of colour, is a Concordia student and a member of its rugby team. Recently he and some twenty of his friends and teammates tried to enter the Sir Winston Churchill Pub on Crescent Street. All were dressed casually. All except Mr. Bishop were white.
All of Mr. Bishop’s friends were allowed entry. The doorman refused Mr. Bishop on the basis that he was wearing baggy jeans. Mr. Bishop argued that some of his friends had the same attire. The doorman would not be moved. Heated words were exchanged and Mr. Bishop’s friends left the pub and proceeded down Crescent street with their friend Courtney.
Mr. Bishop told the media he felt the doorman’s refusal of entry was racially motivated. As abhorrent as that is if true, what happened next is was worse.
A few moments after they left the door of the pub, Courtney and his friends were encircled by police who approached him with guns drawn and asked him to lay on the ground. Apparently the police were responding to a call from the pub because the doorman claimed that he heard Courtney say that he had a gun. No gun was found of course and no charges laid. Courtney is not upset at the police, but he is considering legal action against the pub for discrimination.
What should troubles us in this incident in addition to the racial undertones, is the explanation of the police for their actions. When asked to explain why the unusual demonstration of force against Courtney, police spokesman Laurent Gingras told reporters that “We will take no chances with the public’s security.” Herein lies the problem.
Police officers are always concerned as to why their image is not better with the public. Part of the answer lies in this incident. The “public’s security” is not just a matter of protection against physical harm. It is also a matter of the upholding of individual rights. The automatic assumption on the part of the police at the scene should not have been that just because a caller says something it must be true. Are our police going to be used and manipulated by random callers to be hammers against someone whom we find irritating? Of course not.
The officers should have approached Mr. Bishop, in force of numbers, and confronted him with the accusation. But when they heard his story, they should also have accompanied Mr. Bishop up the street to the pub and confronted the doorman with both the falsity of his accusation and questioned him on Courtney’s charge of racial bias. Not only would that have restored Courtney’s dignity, but it would have sent a strong message – from the police themselves – that they understood the broader community responsibilities in their mandate to keep the peace.
The Quebec malaise
Some reactions from institutions dealing with these problems have been puzzling. B’nai B’rith Canada stated that the Ibragimov sentence “underscores the need for long-term sustained efforts to combat hatred.” Well, perhaps one way to really start is to make punishment fit the crime. We understand that sentencing guidelines are heavily governed by precedent. But sometimes judges need the courage to make new precedent. Judge Cadieux talked the talk. His sentencing did not walk the walk.
Gemma Raeburn’s challenging question was made to police authority. “If we can’t even recognize racism, how are we ever going to cure it?” It certainly should be asked of police after the Bishop assault. But her challenge may also be put to judicial authority after the Ibragimov and Elmerhebi Fahd sentences as well. After all the talk of Quebec “values” this past year, reasonable people may ask whether those “values” apply to protecting all citizens citizens equally from hate. Or has Quebec become too politically cowardly and too ready to pander to the most retrograde elements in our society?
The answer is by no means clear. What is clear is that there is a malaise in Quebec. From the judiciary to the streets. Ironically, the Elmerhebi Fahd sentence came down on the same day that the provincial police arrested four people in the investigation of several anti-Semitic attacks in the Laurentians this past summer. If they are charged and convicted, it will be instructive to see what their sentences will be. Is Quebec ready to stand for something, or will it fall for anything? Will it draw a line in the sand on what two judges have called “terror”? The answers to these questions are also by no means clear. We should all be saddened by that.
I won’t go through a repetition of the litany of racial incidents and attitudes in Quebec. From the firebombing of a Jewish school, to the intolerance exhibited during the accommodation hearings, to the Police Brotherhood’s move to stop a coroner-ordered inquiry into Mohammed Bennis’ death, they are all too fresh in our minds. The firebombings and the Raeburn and Bishop cases are more than sufficient evidence. What I would like to consider here is why it seems so easy to demonize and marginalize minorities – “les autres” – in this Province. So easy that even courts can be caught up in the sad, twisted mindset of trivialization.
An answer was provided by comments on the provincial campaign trail this past week. Pauline Marois proposed toughening Bill 101 by applying it to currently exempted small businesses and hiring more inspectors. Jean Charest wants Ottawa to turn over all cultural and cummunications matters to Quebec and proposed protecting “Quebec-made” cultural products through preferential and discriminatory taxes.
I am not suggesting that Marois and Charest are in anyway racist. Yet perhaps in some manner they have failed in an even greater responsibility of trust. A racist sometimes simply does not know better. But our politicians in Quebec know very well how to play the pandering card. The same old fear-mongering that has been going on for forty years - and before that in the Duplessis era – grabs votes. It grabs votes in the narrowest way possible. By appealing to the lowest common denominator of our society. Proposals such as these re-enforce the message – and a not too subliminal message at that - that it is acceptable to marginalize the “other”. That there are two classes of citizens and that there will be no level playing field. This is a propagation of the teachings of contempt. And from the time these teachings leave the mouths of politicians to the time they filter down and are disseminated in the media and enter the minds of all – from judges to juveniles – the damage is done. It is time for Quebec to do better.
It is time for leaders of Quebec civil society to appeal to the better angels of our nature. We have examples from an unparalleled progressive political patrimony to draw on. Lawyers and legislators, judges and jurists, pundits and politicians should end the perpetuation of insecurity and interposition. Let them draw lessons from Papineau who led the fight that emancipated all minorities twenty years before England; from Lafontaine who structured the first responsible government in the British Empire; from Laurier who proclaimed that it was the proudest boast of his public life to have been denounced by Roman priests and condemned by Protestant parsons and from Trudeau who institutionalized the supremacy of the individual over the whims of the state.
All leaders have a responsibility to make us better, more inclusive, more tolerant. Let no one be fooled. The poison that led to officers drawing guns on three middle-aged black citizens, and judges demonstrating benign neglect in sentencing of hate crime perpetrators, was not produced in a vacuum. It was concocted in the corridors of power where we so often search for justice and not merely law. There is one sad lesson all honest Quebecers must recognize. That lesson is that any society where public policy is proposed and propogated on the basis of personal prejudices giving privilege and preference to one group over another based on parochial particularities - be they of race, color, creed, faith or tongue – will inevitably produce hallmarks of intolerance.
It is time to acknowledge that “sang et langue” doesn’t cut it anymore. It never really did. It was always the big lie. Civil society should recognize that there are more votes to be gained from the heirs of Quebec’s patrimoine politique progressiste nonpareil than from the heirs of la grande noirceur.