Hate crime precedent

The actions of Nathan Neil Rehberg, 21 and Justin Chad Rehberg, 20, have led to a precedent setting judicial ruling in Nova Scotia which could have implications for the rest of the country.

The two White men, charged with public incitement of hatred, mischief, uttering threats and criminal harassment have been found guilty following their February cross-burning on the front lawn of the family home where Shayne Howe and Michelle Lyon live with their five children in Poplar Grove, about 50 kilometres northwest of Halifax. Howe is Black and Lyon is White.

The couple awoke in the early hours one morning to find a cross with a noose hanging from it burning on their lawn and the sound of voices uttering death threats and racial slurs. Then in April Lyon’s car was set on fire. The town, along with an online community, rallied around the Howe-Lyon family, which has been living in fear since the incidents and plans to leave.

Given the history of segregation and racism that followed Black people as they fled from the United States to Canada in the not too distant past, it is hard to believe that it took this long for the courts of this nation to finally acknowledge the intention behind the hateful act of cross-burning.

In a pattern that is all too familiar to those who have been abused by race haters, the older brother, who was found guilty last week, denied the racism implicit in his crime. He said he did not understand the meaning of his actions.

Rehberg told reporters: “I didn’t know what a burning cross really meant.”

This type of disingenuous remark further adds insult to injury and has become as familiar in the aftermath of such assaults as the well worn phrase: ‘Some of my best friends are Black.’

Too many people here still think that when these horrors happen, those targeted who speak up are just being ‘too sensitive’.

When a resident of Campbellford, Ontario dressed up in a Ku Klux Klan costume and led a friend in blackface with a noose around his neck at a local Legion Hall Halloween party, that was disturbing enough. But then to have been awarded a prize for the best costume and for the teenage son of the man who wore the Klan costume to try to trivialize it indicate that we still have far to go in this country to develop empathy and respect for Black humanity.

The threat to the lives of people simply because of skin colour must not be reduced to mere intellectual exercises and clever debates on freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Implicit in these freedoms is the application of responsibility, in this case, the responsibility to be respectful of other human beings not only as it is laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but as a matter of human decency.

The voices of the Black community cannot allow our reactions to these indecencies to be trivialized by being labeled sensitive. Who would not react to such attacks aimed directly at them?

And while we may wish to think that such incidents only happen in small towns like Poplar Grove and Campbellford, away from the big multicultural urban areas such as Toronto, in 2009 Toronto police report there were 174 “hate occurrences” recorded, a 13.7 per cent increase over the 153 recorded in 2008. Moreover, the report notes the number “may not” be a true reflection of actions of hate in this society. Many such incidents go unreported.

We therefore applaud Justice John Murphy’s decision in this case against the Rehberg brothers. The message is now clear that these hateful acts will no longer be dismissed as mere mischief. We fully expect that this precedent will encourage others who have been racially abused to step forward. By the way, while Nathan Rehberg has publicly apologized, neither he nor his brother has yet apologized directly to the Howe-Lyon family.

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