Public safety minister Marco Mendicino says Ottawa is considering expanded security measures for Jewish buildings

Marco Medincino, Minister of Public Safety
Canada's Minister of Public Safety, Marco Mendicino, in an interview via Zoom on Tuesday Jan. 18, 2022 with The CJN Daily.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 15 hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue, police forces in many Canadian cities stepped up their patrols around Jewish buildings and other potential targets of copycat hate crime attacks. 

Although the leaders of the Jewish federations from Edmonton, London, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, downplayed any known immediate dangers to the community, they were grateful and reassured by the increased surveillance.

When Canada’s new Minister of Public Safety, Marco Mendicino, first learned of the Texas hostage taking last weekend, he turned on the news with a heavy heart.

“There is a particular shock of the conscience that we all feel when those attacks occur in a house of worship, in a synagogue, and frankly, anywhere where people go to congregate, to pray, to reflect in peace,” Mendicino told The CJN in an interview on Jan. 18. “I will say that it is a very tragic and harsh reminder of the ongoing, incessant attacks of antisemitism that the community faces around the world.”

Mendicino, the Liberal MP for Toronto’s Eglinton-Lawrence riding which has a large Jewish population, was appointed to the post in November after his previous cabinet role as the minister in charge of immigration, refugees and citizenship. Now, he is in charge of the Communities at Risk: Security Infrastructure Program (SIP)  which is making $8 million available to faith groups at risk in 2021-2022, the highest level of funding since the program started.

It usually takes between four and eight months for the applications to go through the vetting process, according to the department’s website and security experts who have coached the Jewish community on how to apply.

“I think everybody is clear within my department that this is a priority and that we have to deal with these applications on an urgent basis, and we will continue to work closely with the communities to make sure that we get that support out as quickly as possible,” Mendicino said. 

He added that he has heard from Jewish groups who want expanded government funding, including more money to cover staff training and security personnel costs for Jewish sites. 

“Those are not easy questions to navigate because, as is the case with any government initiative, there is a finite universe of resources,” the minister said. However, with the Texas attack coming on the heels of the Tree of Life synagogue killings in Pittsburgh in 2018 and as “other incidents occur with greater frequency and intensity, there is a corresponding obligation on the part of the government to respond in equal measure where we can.”

According to Mendicino, the SIP program and any possible new funds such as the British Community Safety Trust (CST)  model which pays for security guards among other things, should be used in combination with other measures which the Liberal government recently adopted to fight antisemitism in Canada. These include Parliament signing on to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and renewing the position of Prof. Irwin Cotler for a second term as Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. 

Ottawa has also promised to re-introduce legislation to clamp down on hate speech on social media. While the legislation did not pass during the previous Trudeau administration, due to concerns about free speech in a democracy, Mendicino is expecting the revamped bill should be ready before February or March.

Meanwhile, the minister and his colleague from the neighbouring Toronto riding of York Centre, Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks, were set to hold a virtual community safety consultation on Jan. 19. Saks, who received a death threat during her first term in office because she is an openly Jewish politician, will be joined by Rabbi Ronald Weiss, a chaplain who works with the Toronto Police Service. Noah Shack, of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, will be moderating the discussion. The meeting was scheduled before the Texas synagogue was attacked. 

(To submit questions click here.)

Recruit Jewish volunteers

But some security experts say police patrols aren’t the long-term solution to keeping Canadian Jewish buildings safe in this climate of rising antisemitism. Instead, they’re calling for an army of trained community volunteers and staff to add a level of protection to the phalanx of security cameras and fortifications already in place.

“I’m the least worried about security of Jewish institutions during the High Holidays, for example, because everybody is on their toes, everybody hired the guards, everybody’s trained, everybody is watching,” said Adam Cohen, the owner of Montreal-based Perceptage International, who counts the Jewish General Hospital and Bialik High School among his clients. “What worries me the most is a random Tuesday afternoon when everybody goes back to normal, everybody’s back to being complacent, that’s what worries me.”

The Israeli-trained Cohen worked as security director for CIJA until 2016, advising Canada’s Jewish community how to fortify their buildings. He also regularly led training sessions for staff and students in active shooter safety drills. 

Now, with the majority of Canadian Jewish buildings already equipped with security cameras, lighting, fencing and in some cases, even panic buttons, Cohen believes local community volunteers should be recruited, because they are familiar with their membership and Jewish customs.

“For that Navy Seal, he doesn’t know if the person idling in the car watching them is a bad guy planning something, or maybe it is the father of a kid waiting for him to finish his Torah lesson,” Cohen said, referring to a hired guard on duty at a hypothetical synagogue. “Maybe a retired person… who grew up in that synagogue, who grew up in that neighbourhood, he knows everybody. He knows who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the street.”

Although Cohen didn’t elaborate, he said such volunteer systems are in place in Montreal and even in some Jewish schools in Toronto. It is also done for High Holiday services at many congregations, including Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Israel.

“That volunteer, with the help of a security company, is the perfect combination because that retired person could come and say to the younger guard, ‘Hey, go check this. Hey, go check that.’ Cohen said. “[When] you have members of that place protecting their kids, grandkids, relatives, friends that are inside, on rotations, that’s what’s important because they’re invested by life and that’s priceless.”

Budget restraints a problem

“The volunteer person or team of people should be empowered to deny access to any unknown person(s) wishing to gain access,” said Douglas Macy, the owner of Trust 1 Security, who advises Beit Rayim Synagogue in Vaughan, Ont., on security. “They should be well versed on the threats and the challenges facing all of us, as these threats exist all the time, not just on High Holidays.”

Macy acknowledges that financial considerations are a big factor for congregations who must try to balance safety with budget realities. Hiring security guards on a full-time basis—and not just for the major Jewish holidays and events—is often unaffordable.

“On the Sabbath, when our budgets cannot support the extra cost of additional security and paid-duty police officers, we must lean on our volunteers,” Macy said.

In the United Kingdom, the government provides the equivalent of $23 million (£14 million) to a Jewish charity known as the Community Safety Trust (CST) to pay for private guards at buildings and 1,000 events per year. According to Adam Cohen, similar programs exist in some Central and South American countries. 

“So I think Jewish communities here are starting to watch what other communities that have been facing that threat for longer have been doing, “ Cohen said in an interview on Jan. 16. “Now people are more open to the fact that, okay, what can we do now? So I think we’re there.” 

SIP grants from Ottawa

For over a decade, the Canadian Department of Public Safety has allotted money through SIP to cover physical security systems. Although it is open to all faith groups who are targets of hate crimes, many of the approved applications have been for Jewish camps, schools, synagogues and community organizations. 

  • It paid for Beth Torah synagogue in Toronto to install a closed-circuit security camera system and cover their windows with safety film. Of the total cost, $20,657.55 was covered by the Canadian government in 2019.
  • In 2019, Ottawa paid $68,675.00 for Calgary’s Chabad Centre for Jewish Life on Forge Road SE to buy anti-graffiti spray, an alarm system, extra lighting and window covering, plus a closed-circuit television security monitoring system.

In recent years, the eligibility has expanded to respond to the needs for training, and now successful SIP applicants can get up to $10,000 to cover that. 

In 2020, Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim received $20,802.56 for a closed-circuit television monitoring system, lights, and training. A year later, in January 2021, the synagogue was the target of vandalism, when swastikas were sprayed on the building’s doors. A man was arrested a short distance away, after an alert security guard noticed the attack, and called police. The event could have been much worse: the suspect was in possession of a gas canister.

Security situation demands it

During the federal election campaign in the fall of 2021, Canadian Jewish groups including CIJA approached candidates to expand what SIP covers for training, and to bring in a separate, dedicated security fund, modelled after the one in the United Kingdom.

Since Texas, that lobbying has become more urgent. 

“We think the security situation demands it,” Martin Sampson, a spokesman for CIJA, said in an interview on Jan. 17. “The security of the Jewish community is our highest priority.”

Five tips for synagogues to stay safe:

  1. Windows: Laminated to ensure that they cannot be broken.
  2. Window frames: Of solid construction to ensure that they cannot be forced open
  3. Exterior perimeter: Keep trees far enough away from the building that they cannot be used as access tools into the building or on to a roof. Keep work tools like ladders or gardening tools under lock and key.
  4. Alarm systems: Include sensors for glass breaks and window/door contacts, keep them on and monitored at all times. Motion sensors when building is not occupied. Panic buttons should also be considered.
  5. Security cameras: Focus on the perimeter of the building, parking lots, all entrances and interior common areas. Store video recordings for at least 30 to 45 days. Keep cameras cleaned. License plate recognition cameras can be deployed in key areas.
  6. Main entrance doors: Should be attended by volunteers and support staff including security guards and police services. All other doors are to be locked at all times and checked to ensure they remain locked. 

—Douglas Macy, owner, Trust 1 Security.