Hijab Hoax: Some Answers from Toronto Police and Lingering Questions for Toronto District School Board, Media, Politicians, and Girl’s Family

It’s been almost three weeks since the false report of an eleven-year-old girl being twice attacked by a crazed Asian man with scissors, cutting a 12-inch slice in her hijab, was first blasted across cyberspace on Friday, January 12. Once the Toronto Police concluded their investigation, finding the incident was a fabricated hoax, the media — absolutely flabbergasted — did a little soul-searching in how they had thrown caution to the wind when recklessly broadcasting the young girl’s face around the world in a few short hours after the yarn had been spun, then quickly dropped the matter as if the matter was settled (the media are notoriously and ironically bad at self-reflection and admitting their own screw-ups).

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Press conference was held during lunchtime. The initial report was tweeted out by Toronto Police at 9:33 a.m.

The Toronto Star tried to place the blame solely on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). They and others in the media patted themselves on the back for belatedly deciding to not use the girl’s name and to blur out her face in pictures, even though they and the rest of the mainstream media were simply closing the stable door after they already let the horse bolt. Generally, the mainstream outlets in the media were in consensus that the story had too much international appeal, and the family was willing to let the girl go in front of the camera, that they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use the girl’s face and name. No one, except some curious writers (some would slander by calling “Islamophobes) at the Toronto Sun and myself, dared to question whether or not the girl and her brother were put up to it. The Toronto Star tried to exonerate the family by unquestioningly publishing the family’s late, vague apology and a defense of how the girl’s immigrant family didn’t likely understanding the ramifications of going in front of the media because of their unfamiliarity with the press in Canada. Never mind that the mother has been in Canada 25 years and grew up here, which she explained at the press conference. Even the National Post’s Chris Selley assumed it was just the poor girl’s mistake being blown up internationally, and that it’s best to just move on from the whole debacle.

Nevertheless, there are still lingering questions reasonable Canadians would like answered, by most parties involved, before this unfortunate chapter can be laid to rest. Asian-Canadians have been protesting the last couple weeks, demanding Prime Minister Trudeau and others apologize for rushing to judgement when the girl alleged the assailant was a young Asian man with bangs and a thin mustache. Living in South Korea for two years and traveling throughout Asia, I know firsthand how many Asian cultures take their collective reputation as a community very seriously. With that mindset, why wouldn’t some Asian-Canadians see this as opportunistic politicians like Kathleen Wynne, John Tory and Trudeau irresponsibly propagating a false accusation, making them complicit in slandering the entire Asian-Canadian community, especially when they never apologized and didn’t delete their original tweets (excluding Tory).

(Trudeau’s tweet still hasn’t been removed from his Twitter page.)

Expecting straight answers from politicians is a fool’s errand of course, but perhaps the Toronto Police could be more straightforward.

“It wasn’t abruptly ended, it concluded naturally,” said Toronto Police Services Commander Mark Pugash, referring to the investigation into the false report, in an interview with me conducted after the Sherman press conference at Toronto Police headquarters last Friday.

“We compiled a lot of evidence, including interviews and security camera footage, and came to the only conclusion that we could come to, that it didn’t happen. People kept asking me, ‘Well how did it happen? How did it come to that point?’ I said that I don’t think it is appropriate for me to comment on that. The obligation on us was to investigate, and we had serious allegations, and we took them seriously. We investigated. Within three days we came back and said, ‘Our view is, from the evidence, [this didn’t happen].'”

In a radio interview back on January 15, the day Toronto Police announced the report was a hoax, Pugash said at the time, “Again, I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to go into speculation about how it might have started or who may have been involved, our concern was that there were very serious allegations, which caused alarm and dismay to people in the city and beyond investigators worked very aggressively to gather a significant amount of evidence that they looked at, that they tested, that they analyzed, and the only conclusion that they could come to was that it didn’t happen.”

When I asked Pugash why the police didn’t do further investigation into the family possibly being involved in the false report, which if true could be grounds for laying criminal charges, Pugash explained the evidence didn’t lead police to further investigate.

“There was nothing that justified further action.”

Pugash also explained that Toronto Police didn’t have anything to do with the rushed press conference.

“There were officers there. This generated a lot of media attention and I felt it was appropriate to send on of my [press officers] there to speak to the media. By the time she got there, what ever the school had done was long over.”

The TDSB has also distanced itself from any role in organizing and hosting the press conference in their official statement to media, despite the press conference being held in a school classroom and a TDSB representative taking part.

Hi Graeme,

Here’s a statement that we’ve provided with regards to how the media avail came to be on Friday. I think this answers your questions.

“On Friday morning, Toronto Police tweeted about an initial report of an assault at the school involving a man cutting off a student’s hijab. As a result, a TDSB spokesperson was dispatched to the school, where multiple media outlets were already present and wanting to speak to the student and/or her family. At no time, did the TDSB call a press conference, however spokespeople from the TDSB and Toronto Police made themselves available to answer any questions. This was done inside the school due to the bad weather outside. After expressing concern that they were going to be approached by media outside while trying to leave, as well as a concern that no members of the community be subject to the alleged perpetrator, the family was asked if they would like to join the TDSB spokesperson as she spoke to media. The family members said they would speak to media and it was our understanding that this happened after, not before, they provided statements to police. Once again, we are very thankful that this assault did not in fact happen. Our motivation for commenting on the issue at the time was only out of compassion, care, concern and support — as did many elected leaders nationally, provincially and locally via interviews or social media.”

With regards to any possible disciplinary action, for privacy reasons, I’m not able to provide any more information on that. Hope you understand.

Thanks,

Ryan [Bird, TDSB spokesperson]

Raving Canuck filed an access to information request with the TDSB for all records pertaining to the hijab hoax and press conference shortly after the alleged attack was found not to have happened. A follow-up report will be published when those documents are provided to us. (The TDSB has a month to respond to the request and has already sent a letter confirming it’s received our request. A time extension could be asked for processing the request, but it would be surprising because it’s not a large request.)

Finally, although Toronto Police found no evidence to warrant further investigation, the response from the family throughout the whole ordeal deserves further scrutiny.

Why did the family decide to go in front of the cameras only a few hours after the alleged attack took place? Why, in their vague apology, wouldn’t the family explain why the girl and boy made up this elaborate story? Who cut a twelve inch gash into the hijab?

Representatives for Toronto Police and TDSB both said they didn’t organize the press conference, so why did the mother make the decision to go in front of the media with her children? One shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but at the very least the family should have given a better explanation for why their children made up this story. If the girl didn’t want to wear her hijab and made up a story with her brother then why not tell the public that? It may never be known exactly how and why this hoax was started, but at least we can get some answers on the way the TDSB acted through an access to information request.

 

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