Protesters on Toronto’s Avenue Road bridge, in the heart of the Jewish community, can expect to be arrested, says police chief Myron Demkiw

Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw takes questions from reporters at a media conference at TPS headquarters, Jan. 11, 2024. (Credit: Jonathan Rothman)

Protests will no longer be allowed on the Avenue Road overpass above Highway 401, Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw announced at a Police Services Board meeting on Jan. 11. The bridge is the main entrance to a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood and has been closed by police several times due to pro-Palestinian protests.  

Demkiw said those who protest in that location should expect to be arrested “if it becomes necessary.” There have been an “unprecedented” 308 demonstrations in the city since Oct. 7, he said, with 60 of those since the chief’s last police board update on Dec. 19.

“Considering all the factors that have transpired over the recent weeks, it is quite clear that our communities feel unsafe … particularly our Jewish communities in the immediate vicinity of the Avenue Road bridge,” Demkiw told reporters following the board meeting.

“There [are] a number of considerations as to the way events are unfolding in past weeks that give rise to a very serious concern for community safety and well-being related to that particular overpass,” over Canada’s busiest highway, he noted.

Police can use “certain powers” under the Highway Traffic Act “as appropriate,” Demkiw said.

“We are very concerned about the levels of criminal intimidation that give rise to an initial need to consider preventing offences as it relates to the Criminal Code in that regard.

“As I’ve been saying for months now, criminal acts of hate and intimidation must have no space in our city,” said Demkiw.

When asked about protests that target Jewish-owned businesses, or neighbourhoods with large numbers of Jewish residents, he says Toronto Police Service (TPS) is now applying “a criminal lens” where intimidation has been at play.

“The Jewish community has made it very, very clear, and properly clear, that they feel intimidated. We are now taking a criminal lens to our approach and gathering evidence and making our operational considerations to prevent criminal offences,” he said, adding that can mean taking people into custody if necessary.

“Our commitment to keeping our city’s Jewish community safe is unwavering. We are doing everything we can in the locations that have been targeted for demonstrations,” said Demkiw at the board meeting.

Police also arrested a man Jan. 7 and charged him with public incitement of hatred after officers observed him bearing a flag representing a group listed as a terrorist organization by the federal government. The 41-year-old Toronto man is scheduled to appear in the Ontario Court of Justice on Feb. 23.

“This is an unprecedented charge,” Demkiw told the police board, adding the TPS hate crimes unit was leading the investigation while working with the attorney general’s office.

Demkiw told the board he would not show the terrorist symbol that resulted in the arrest as he did not wish to provide a platform for that message.

Toronto police have arrested 54 people and laid 117 charges since Oct. 7 that they allege to be hate-motivated. Antisemitic incidents are up 168 percent since Oct. 7 when compared with the same period in 2022.

In a news release Jan. 11, Toronto police said antisemitic hate crimes comprised 37 percent of the total reported hate crimes in Toronto in 2023.

The total number of reported antisemitic hate crimes in 2023 was 132, up from 65 in 2022, while reported hate crimes of an anti-Muslim, Palestinian or Arab nature rose to 35 in 2023, up from 12 in 2022.

Demkiw said police have taken “great steps over the past weeks to facilitate lawful and peaceful assembly,” both on the Avenue Road bridge, and while attending and managing other demonstrations since Oct. 7.

“But as in all cases, when things move to a criminal consideration, which we are alleging is the case now, there are limits to that freedom of speech and we have an obligation to prevent offences and keep community safe, keep demonstrators safe, and keep our police officers safe.

“There are plenty of places in the city [more] appropriate… for lawful assembly and expression,” he added, noting the dynamic nature of demonstrations means they “sometimes present a risk to public safety” but that the TPS’ challenge is to “strike the right balance” between public safety and “upholding the right to free speech.”

“Recently, there’s been a shift in the intensity and overall atmosphere of some of the demonstrations,” Demkiw said at the police services board meeting, though he noted that the “volatile” protests were far from the majority of the “staggering 308 demonstrations we have managed since Oct. 7.”

Speaking about the demonstrations, Demkiw added that the public safety response team is being redeployed to manage protests.

“This means the same teams will be responding to the protests and demonstrations, which will ensure that, despite the increasingly challenging nature of these events, our response will be consistent within and across demonstrations, while being dictated by the situation on the ground.

“Expression, even when it is experienced as unpopular or disturbing, is nevertheless protected … However, everything else criminal manifests in such things as threats, mischief, or as we saw in a Jewish-owned business in North York last week, arson.”

The chief did not provide updates on the investigation into the arson and graffiti at International Delicatessen Foods on Steeles Avenue, which police are investigating as a suspected hate-motivated crime. “Free Palestine” was spray-painted on the building exterior, and windows were broken in the Jan. 3 incident.

According to a TPS news release, three hate crimes have been reported in the city in 2024, including two that were antisemitic. The service’s web form for reporting hateful graffiti, launched in early November, has received 145 submissions to date.

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, vice-president GTA for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), attended a meeting that Demkiw held with Jewish community leaders Jan. 8, where many expressed their concerns. She says it’s clear the police have heard the community’s concerns and are changing course.

“Day after day, we have seen protests target the very heart of Toronto’s Jewish community, because it is the heart of Toronto’s Jewish community and because of a war happening on the other side of the globe, and that is unacceptable,” she said.  

“It is unacceptable that anyone should have to feel targeted, harassed and intimidated while taking their child to daycare, while meeting an elderly parent at their home, while coming or going from their place of worship… It is unacceptable that anyone in Canada should have to feel unsafe in their own neighbourhood.

“We sent our message loud and clear to the chief and to all levels of government that this was hatred, that this was intolerable. And I’m glad to see the chief has heard our message,” she told The CJN. “I think the whole community is breathing a sigh of relief today.”

Kirzner-Roberts said the arrest of a man on hate incitement charges for allegedly flying the flag of a terrorist organization “groundbreaking.”

“It is such an important development in the fight against hatred in our city. And it lays the groundwork for other police services to do the same thing,” she said.

“The fact of the matter is, we have incredibly extensive rights to speech in Canada, but that right is not limitless,” Kirzner-Roberts said, adding that by laying the charge, TPS has sent a message.

“If you break the law, if you promote hatred, genocide and terror, you will be held accountable. And we hope to see that commitment to holding perpetrators of hate accountable being taken on by other police services across the country.

“There’s been a feeling of impunity among entrepreneurs of hate for way too long.”

Demkiw also met on Jan. 10 with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jewish community leaders at Beth Tzedec Congregation. Later on Jan. 11, Demkiw — along with Members of Parliament Melissa Lantsman and Marco Mendicino, and Toronto city councillor James Pasternak — was scheduled to attend a Jewish community town hall event at Adath Israel Congregation focused on addressing antisemitism in Toronto.