Tensions high after fire set at refugee hotel
Suspected arson follows hate campaign appearing on right-wing websites
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.”
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.