Ten­sions high af­ter fire set at refugee ho­tel

Sus­pected ar­son fol­lows hate cam­paign ap­pear­ing on right-wing web­sites

Toronto Star - - NEWS - NI­CHOLAS KEUNG IM­MI­GRA­TION RE­PORTER

Com­mu­nity ad­vo­cates are alarmed that a Toronto ho­tel hous­ing hun­dreds of asy­lum seek­ers ap­pears to have be­come the tar­get of anti-refugee sen­ti­ment af­ter a fire was de­lib­er­ately set in a hall­way.

The Radis­son Ho­tel in the city’s north-east, which is the tem­po­rary home to 570-plus so-called ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants from the United States, was the scene of a blaze that sent all guests out onto the streets at about 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 2.

Toronto po­lice say the fire was started in the third-floor hall­way af­ter a gaso­line con­tainer was al­legedly set alight. Po­lice re­leased a pho­to­graph Fri­day of a woman they are seek­ing in con­nec­tion to the blaze, which is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated as ar­son. No in­juries were re­ported.

The fire fol­lows an on­line an­tirefugee cam­paign in­volv­ing post­ings on right-wing web­sites, which in­cluded a video taken by tres­passers show­ing what they claimed was van­dal­ism by refugees stay­ing at the ho­tel.

“It hits me as a Cana­dian how sad and dis­turb­ing it is. It’s not what we had ex­pected of each other,” said Mario Calla, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of COSTI, an agency that is help­ing look af­ter the ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants.

“Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have a great in­flu­ence on pub­lic opin­ions. The last thing we want is to see th­ese far-right na­tion­al­ists be em­bold­ened by virtue of our elected of­fi­cials be­ing silent and not deal­ing with th­ese kinds of is­sues.”

Ten days af­ter the in­ci­dent, elected of­fi­cials re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment from the Star, of­fer­ing the first pub­lic con­dem­na­tion of the at­tack that has rat­tled refugees and their ad­vo­cates.

“I can’t imag­ine how cruel and evil a per­son has to be to know­ingly light a fire in­side a ho­tel while peo­ple are sleep­ing. It is deeply con­cern­ing to even con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­ity of this be­ing a hate-mo­ti­vated, tar­geted act aimed at in­no­cent refugees,” Mayor John Tory said Fri­day.

“I know the vast ma­jor­ity of Toronto res­i­dents and Cana­di­ans wish them ab­so­lutely no harm. Every per­son in Canada has a right to feel safe and should not fear for their safety.”

There are cur­rently 2,600 ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants stay­ing in Toronto’s shel­ter sys­tem and four ho­tels in the GTA are con­tract- ed to ac­com­mo­date the over­flow. The ho­tels will still be needed in the new year if the ar­rival of mi­grants con­tin­ues at the same rate. The city is also plan­ning to add 1,000 new shel­ter beds by the end of 2019.

Be­tween Jan­uary and Au­gust, 14,125 asy­lum seek­ers ar­rived in Canada through un­guarded bor­der cross­ings. Af­ter a brief dip in ar­rivals in May and June, the num­ber rose again in July and Au­gust.

Are­cent Star se­ries found a 20 to 25 per cent jump in the num­ber of white na­tion­al­ist and right-wing ex­trem­ist groups op­er­at­ing in Canada over the past three years, es­ti­mat­ing there are any­where from 100 to 125 ac­tive groups coast to coast.

The growth has caused po­lice and se­cu­rity agen­cies to re­assess the threat the move­ment poses.

“The xeno­pho­bic and racist dis­course that has been am­pli­fied over the past months must stop,” said Deb­bie Dou­glas of OCASI, an um­brella group that rep­re­sents 200 im­mi­grant set­tle­ment agen­cies in On­tario.

“There must be a clear and un­equiv­o­cal con­dem­na­tion of th­ese sen­ti­ments and ac­tions from our po­lit­i­cal and civic lead­ers.”

Al­though the in­flux of ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants from the U.S. started as early as late-2016 when Don­ald Trump was elected pres­i­dent and threat­ened im­mi­gra­tion bans, the anti-refugee sen­ti­ment north of the bor­der only be­gan brew­ing this sum­mer with con­cerns of ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants flood­ing the city’s shel­ter sys­tem.

Of­fi­cials had re­fused to dis­close the lo­ca­tion of the refugee shel­ters but, in June, on­line com­ments be­gan ap­pear­ing on Tri­pAd­vi­sor, a ho­tel re­view web­site, with peo­ple out­ing the Radis­son and trash­ing it as a “refugee hold­ing cen­tre.”

The web­site sus­pended com­ment­ing on the ho­tel af­ter it found some posts were un­sub­stan­ti­ated and not based on first-per­son ex­pe­ri­ences. The ho­tel man­age­ment de­clined to com­ment when con­tacted by the Star.

“We’re liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent dark world now,” said Bernie Far­ber, chair of the Cana­dian Anti-Hate Net­work. “We have a premier who posed with a far-right may­oral can­di­date and wants peo­ple to be­lieve that this (ir­reg­u­lar mi­gra­tion) is a big prob­lem and calls it il­le­gal mi­gra­tion. It stokes the fire among peo­ple who are al­ready lean­ing to­ward hat­ing refugees and im­mi­grants.”

Ac­cord­ing to COSTI’s Calla, three tres­passers filmed refugees at the ho­tel in Septem­ber and posted a de­grad­ing video show­ing the words “free money” and what they claimed was hu­man ex­cre­ment in the hall­ways.

Three other tres­pass­ing at­tempts by cam­era-wield­ing strangers were re­ported since, af­ter COSTI boosted se­cu­rity at the ho­tel with around-the­clock guards at all en­trances.

“Now our clients are fright­ened and anx­ious. They are afraid to even go to the bus stop fear­ing peo­ple will seek them out,” said Calla, adding that refugees at the ho­tel have done noth­ing to van­dal­ize the build­ing as de­scribed in the video.

“Th­ese racist white na­tion­al­ists in­tend to de­stroy our so­cial co­he­sion. Cana­di­ans need to be aware of them and not tol­er­ate th­ese kinds of at­ti­tudes and ide­olo­gies that are rooted in racism.”

STEVE RUS­SELL TORONTO STAR

Com­mu­nity ad­vo­cates have raised con­cern over right-wing rad­i­cal­ism af­ter an at­tempted ar­son at a Toronto ho­tel where hun­dreds of re­cent ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants are be­ing housed.

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