It was just a picture on a chocolate bar wrapper. But it opened the gates of hate.
Fae Johnstone, a transgender activist from Ottawa, had expected some pushback. A trans woman being part of an International Women’s Day promotion by Hershey’s was bound to trigger someone, somewhere.
She didn’t predict the avalanche of vitriol that followed the March 8 release of the candy. The wrappers featured the likeness of Canadian women, and Johnstone was included as the only trans woman.
Her family’s personal information was posted online. She received death threats and calls for her suicide. She had to lock down her social media accounts.
“I was subjected to a degree of personal privacy violation and hate that is truly traumatizing,” Johnstone said. “It became an international scandal and then actually spawned a #boycottHersheys campaign on Twitter that was trending across North America. That was nowhere near anyone’s radar.”
The reaction to the Hershey’s wrapper is a sign of the times. Johnstone has watched with dread the escalation of an anti-trans panic that has fuelled protests outside of drag shows, provided grist for assorted Twitter goblins and, in America, the passage of anti-trans bills in Republican-controlled state houses under the guise of protecting children.
In Canada, far-right parties are seeking to get in on the act. On May 24, Maxime Bernier, leader of People’s Party of Canada who is running in a Manitoba by-election, released an anti-trans policy position. The policy statement attacks drag story times and says the PPC policy would criminalize medical support for trans youth, lift the federal ban on the anti-LGBTQ+ “conversion therapy,” and remove transgender protections in federal anti-discrimination laws.
“It is just repackaged homophobia from the 1970s and 1980s,” Johnstone said. “They recognize that if they call us groomers and pedophiles enough, some people might listen and they can create a social environment where people are worried about queer and trans people and our existence because of this supposed threat to kids.”
Hershey’s stood by Johnstone, who said the police are investigating some of the threats. But harassment continues.
Johnstone says efforts to combat hate cannot be left only to the police, who respond to events after the fact. Hate has to be torn up by its roots.
“It’s not just transphobia. It is also misogyny and is also white supremacy,” Johnstone said. “We are seeing far-right protests at drag shows. And we are also seeing a proliferation of racist rhetoric across our society. We can’t pretend these are isolated issues.”
Across Ontario there are attempts, big and small, to turn the tide as the number of hate incidents in the province escalates to historic highs according to police-reported statistics.
In some cases, grassroots groups are taking matters into their own hands to help create a better picture of hate incidents, while others are trying to change hearts and minds through education. Police services are increasing community outreach, and there is at least one pilot program attempting to deradicalize racists.
Groups that organize and network to spread hate also have to be directly confronted, said Howard Slepkov, president of the Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Catharines.
“Jews are no longer the only group that’s targeted. The Asian community is targeted. The Black community is targeted. The Indigenous communities are targeted. Those are the things we need to deal with.”
Changing the hearts of hate
While police took Johnstone’s complaints seriously, she said to undo the Gordian knot of hatred takes more than a visit from a detective. Those who hold and push bigotry didn’t just wake up that way. Changing that kind of worldview takes work.
“We don’t have the vehicles through which to counter misinformation or through which to share educational content and resources to deradicalize anti-trans people,” said Johnstone, who is now advocating for more government action to counter LGBTQ hate with her #Act4QueerSafety campaign.
“We need to develop the practices and services that can reach them, because we’ve done it around other issues. We do it with terrorists. We just don’t have any support from any level of government to get that work done.”
In Peel Region, a pilot project at the John Howard Society, funded by the United Way of Halton and Hamilton, has been launched to change the hearts and minds of bigots. The program is aimed at counselling youths who committed hate incidents. They are referred to the program by lawyers, a judge or their schools, said Kara Hart, director of program development at the non-profit organization.
The program launched in 2022 after a coalition of anti-hate and community groups, including the John Howard Society, produced a report that showed the rate of people exposed to a hate incident was 50 times higher in Peel Region than the national average.
“This type of work, unfortunately, is still in the early stages, even though it should be in the late stages. Canada is way behind the eight-ball on this work. We are decades behind Europe and surprisingly, we are behind the United States as well,” said Hart.
The John Howard Society counselling — which includes group early-intervention workshops and one-on-one therapy — aims to help someone examine where their biases come from, develop new critical thinking skills as well as teach them the impact of hatred on victims and the broader community.
“Even if one person may have been targeted, the result of hate is widespread. So it affects everybody that’s directly connected with that victim as well as the community, and then much further. So, for example, that’s why the murder of George Floyd had such an impact across the globe, because even though it only happened to one person, other people are (affected),” she said.
Hart said the John Howard Society would like to eventually expand the program into schools, but have to conduct an annual review of the program before that can happen. She will be presenting the program’s early results to a John Howard Society conference in June, which she hopes will spur other districts to adopt it.
The program’s reach is still limited. So far, 14 youths have taken part in the workshops and only one has gone through the eight-week one-on-one therapy.
There is also an adult version of the program’s therapy process, which a total of 10 people have been through. Hart said most of the adults are self-referred by those trying to change.
Deradicalization of adults cannot be forced, said Elizabeth Moore, a former white nationalist turned anti-facist activist and educator. The former editor of the newsletter of the notorious and now defunct Canadian neo-Nazi group The Heritage Front, said for those who are committed to hate, objections to their worldview is seen as confirmation they are right.
“You can’t force somebody to quit,” said Moore who found her way out of white nationalism on her own — in part through an act of kindness by an Ontario Jewish leader. “You can show them all the evidence and show them how terrible this is. But that understanding has to come from within people on their own. I know that’s so frustrating and scary for friends and family of someone involved with that stuff.”
Hart said external pressures can push a racist to seek help. Most of the adults in the John Howard program have arrived after family or friends expressed concerns, or have watched those personal relationships crumble under the weight of their racism.
“Most of the time someone has said ‘Your thinking patterns are problematic and it’s jeopardizing either your liberty because you’re being charged with a crime or it’s jeopardizing a really close relationship,’ ” Hart said. “I don’t believe we’ve had even a self-referral yet who have come to an intrinsic recognition about it. So far, it’s been outside motivation. But again, our sample size is so small right now.”
Programs like the John Howard Society pilot are rare and Hart said adult clients are finding it through community networks or a hunt on Google’s search engine.
Moore said she would like to see deradicalization and cult deprogramming be included in more basic training for psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists.
“It’s an exhausting situation to go to a therapist and ask for help and then have to spend like hours, if not weeks, educating them on what you need. When someone’s in a dire situation, that they shouldn’t have to also take that on as well,” Moore said.
To avoid the complications that come with deradicalizing adults, it is best to teach anti-racism early, before children learn to hate others, says Slepkov.
“It’s no good waiting until they become the president of the United States and try to teach them at that point,” he said. “These things begin when you are in public school and growing up.”
Slepkov, a former teacher, is concerned too many youths are unaware of the history they could be repeating.
“Young kids in Grade 4, 5 and 6, they don’t really know anything about the Jewish people and they don’t know absolutely anything about Nazism,” he said.
A young person might spray paint a Nazi swastika on the side of the building because they know it will bother people, he said, but don’t know it was the icon of a genocidal, fascist regime that started a global war.
It is why he is pleased Ontario added in November mandatory education about the Holocaust in Grade 6, as a way to counter rising incidents of antisemitism in Ontario.
Teachers are ideally placed to set an anti-hate example for their students, he said.
“It’s up to you to set the example in your classroom to treat each individual child with respect, to give each individual child their place in the sun so that everyone in the classroom comes to think of themselves not as Black or white, gay or straight, ethnic or Canadian, but as people who need to be treated with respect and dignity and talked to properly, and I don’t think that is always the case, even today in schools.”
A very difficult subject
It may be easier to teach anti-racism to the receptive minds of schoolchildren, but adults run the world. To fight hate means dealing with those who hold and spread insidious ideas.
Challenging those beliefs means having hard conversations about what Niagara Falls anti-racism educator Sherri Darlene calls “a very difficult and taboo subject.”
“I think what scares white people about anti-racism work is they think it’s one idea in their head: In order for me to be an anti-racist and be active, be an active ally, it means making a sign and marching down the street,” said Darlene, who organized the June 2020 Justice 4 Black Lives rally that drew thousands of people to Niagara Falls after the murder of George Floyd.
While Darlene said the Black community appreciated the support, white people need to do more than attend rallies.
“We need you to be an active ally in your everyday life … If you’re a CEO of a company or a cashier, you can be an active ally, because unfortunately, racism happens everywhere, every day.”
Darlene started giving anti-racism presentations this year to community groups and businesses after seeing what she believed was a gap in anti-racism education. Many existing presentations are highly technical and academic, she said. She wanted to provide something more personal that allows for “no holds barred” and “hardcore conversations.”
She said it can be a real challenge to get her audience to recognize some attitudes about race are so deeply ingrained they aren’t aware of them.
“The bottom line is there was this ideology that was always embedded in them. And whether they accepted it or not, it was there and they’ve acted upon it their entire life. Again, I am not saying they are racist.”
Hearing the truth is not always easy, she said, but necessary to combat hate.
“Reach one, teach one. Because honestly, it is the only way out because racism is absolutely absurd. It’s rooted in nothing but ignorance,” she said. “We all know ignorance is a lack of knowledge. So let me feed you the truth.”
That kind of unflinching look in the mirror can generate anger from her audience, she said, but also a fresh point of view.
But even then, the work isn’t over.
“I tell my white people at the beginning, ‘I need you to understand that this is like a diet. It’s like a lifestyle change. You might lose people that you’ve been friends with for years,’ ” she said. “I’ve had some people come back to me and say ‘Sherri, I can’t do this. It’s too hard. It’s every day, no matter what I say, there are just some people you can’t get through. It’s exhausting. I can’t do it.’ And I understand that.”
Shifting world views is vital because it can change the everyday behaviours that propagate hate, said Kojo Damptey, former executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI).
“As soon as you accept the fact that there is systemic racism or anti-Black racism, you can’t continue doing the stuff that you used to do. For instance, when you come to learn that you can’t use homophobic slurs anywhere, whether in public or whether you’re in private or whether you are playing hockey, or out with your boys or whatever it is,” Dampety said. “So that’s also one of the reasons people do not want to change. They have become accustomed to doing certain things.”
Shields against hate
Kristyn Wong-Tam isn’t waiting for the person-by-person approach to yield resultsto change enough hearts to protect a common target of hatred in Ontario — transgender people and drag performers.
From Wong-Tam’s lens, the government has to do something before outrage and conspiracy theories push someone into an act of violence. So the Toronto-Centre New Democrat MPP is trying to change the law to protect them.
For months, all-ages drag storybook readings at libraries and performances at restaurants and other small businesses have been met with protesters pushing scurrilous claims that drag performers are part of a plot to groom children for sexual abuse.
“They can’t breed!” screamed Chrystal Peters at a December protest outside a performance at a Hamilton Boston Pizza, a ringleader of protests travelling around Ontario, targeting all-ages events featuring drag performers. “That’s why they are trying to get everyone else’s kids!”
The protests have popped up across the province, in some cases drawing support from white nationalist groups.
Death threats have been common. A Brockville story time by a drag king at a library was met with bomb threats and an attempted arson on the building’s rooftop.
“The mythology that’s being perpetuated that drag performers are groomers and pedophiles is entirely untrue,” said Wong-Tam. “They said the same thing about the Jewish community at one point. They vilified them to the point that they became caricatures, dehumanizing them. Which is the first step to creating laws to take away their rights, to strip them of their humanity, and then violence that falls upon them in very horrific ways, whether it’s individual violence or not, it becomes state-sanctioned violence.”
Wong-Tam has put forward a private members’ bill that would create a protest-free bubble of 100 metres near a venue featuring a drag performer. Protesters can still gather, but it will have to be outside that zone.
As an opposition private members bill, Tam’s effort will need the support of the governing Progressive Conservative Party for it to become law. So far, the Tories have not voiced support for it.
“We all know that a private member’s bill in a majority government could die on the order paper. And it could literally take years for us to get through the parliamentary process,” said Wong-Tam. “However, if the government found this to be of urgency and truly wanted to protect our community and not leave us exposed to harm and danger, then they would pick up that private member’s bill and adopt it as a government bill.
“We could be debating it tomorrow.”
While Wong-Tam tries to get the government to pick up their torch, the governing Tories have moved on their own anti-hate program. On May 5, the government announced it was expanding a program giving religious and minority organizations grants of up to $10,000 to improve security to combat hate crimes.
At the same time, some police services are boosting their own community outreach and anti-hate initiatives.
The service created pamphlets on reporting hate incidents available in nine languages. The pamphlets are available to download online, pick up at district front desks and have been provided to places of worship and community groups.
NRP spokesperson Const. Phil Gavin said the campaign is effort to encourage members of the community to report hate-related incidents to police.
In its 2023 hate crime report, the NRP speculated that the #StopHateNiagara campaign contributed in a rise in reporting, which in turn contributed to the near doubling of hate crime incidents last year.
Like several Ontario police services, the NRP now has an equity, diversity and inclusion unit, which works with officers to better recognize and document incidents of hate. The unit also tries to build relationships with those communities that are targets of hate crimes.
In Peel, police officers are working to support victims of hate, even when an incident doesn’t rise to the level of criminality through what Acting Insp. Feras Ismail called the service’s “reassurance protocol,” which was launched in 2018.
“We now ensure that every victim of a hate crime or incident anywhere from a simple slur all the way to a serious crime immediately gets a followup phone call from our officers to check on their well-being, and to connect them with social service providers and provide them that support should they need it, request it and ask for it,” said Ismail. “And then beyond that, we continue on in our more serious crimes, to do our best to follow up and check in on them and their well-being.”
Activists like Darlene welcome the police outreach, but warn they won’t show immediate results in communities where there is a breakdown of trust with law enforcement.
“This is not something that is going to happen overnight. You are not going to get immediate results. There’s going to be some Black people that turn around and tell you to kick rocks,” Darlene said. “We have to be OK with that. You’re not going to get everyone, but you have to make a constant effort. Anti-racism work is a commitment and you have to be prepared for that.”
Other critics say police need to start focusing more on hate crimes when new officers are being trained.
Officer recruits receive a 45-minute seminar on hate crimes during their three months at the provincial police college. That isn’t enough, said Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa.
“They are taught to take these things seriously, but it is just that short course in all the other things they have to learn,” said Perry. “It just gets lost in everything else, so it’s no wonder it is not a priority when they start their jobs.”
‘I deserve dignity’
Others are not waiting for police or the government to act. Grassroots organizations like the Hamilton Anti-Racism Resource Centre (HARRC) have launched a website that will allow people to report hate incidents and connect them with community resources, including counselling and therapy.
“I can say that I was in Hamilton probably two months before I experienced my first incidents of hate,” said Kim Martin of No Hate in the Hammer during the May 8 news conference when the website was unveiled. “And at that point, I really was not sure what to do because throughout my life when these things happen, there is really nothing to do. The launch of this platform means that there is something that people can do.”
Eventually, the data on hate incidents collected by the We Support Hamilton website will be reported publicly, and organizers hope it will help provide a clear picture of hate in the city.
The website was launched with financial support from some community groups, including the Hamilton Community Foundation, and HAARC has hired a staffer who will connect with each person who reports a hate incident.
But long-term funding is not guaranteed and other community efforts to mitigate the impact of hatred are facing a financial crunch.
Last year, the Hamilton YWCA launched a program to provide support for racialized transgender residents who have experienced hatred and racism.
The transgender community is very small, said Sid Kirk, co-ordinator of the Intersect/Act program at the YWCA, and helping them build connections is vital, particularly when they are being openly targeted and vilified as child predators.
But in March, the provincial government funding earmarked for anti-racism efforts that made the program possible ran out, and it is not clear if that funding will be renewed, said Kirk.
“This kind of great work is really necessary in this day and age,” Kirk said. “It is not just the hate crimes, but also our neighbours to the south and the hatred that’s come up from there and the blatant discrimination it causes.”
Dampety said efforts to fight hate have to happen despite the obstacles.
“People may think you’re doing it because you hate them or because you disagree with them. But we do it because, and I say this as someone born and raised in Africa, I deserve dignity. Same as everyone deserves dignity,” Damptey said. “I’ll end with a line from one of my favourite Hamilton musicians who goes by the name Mother Tareka. And he says, ‘Race is made up, but hate is real.’ ”
— With files from Joelle Kovach, The Peterborough Examiner
Grant LaFleche is an investigative reporter with The Spectator. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org