Muslim group calls for charges over ‘hate-motivated assault’ at Masham store
Store staff called police over fight, not hijab-mask issue
By Stuart Benson
The National Council of Canadian Muslims called for the MRC des Collines Police to lay charges in what they allege to be a “hate-motivated assault” at the Depanneur Boucherie M.S. in Masham on Aug. 8.
“There must be zero tolerance for hate in Quebec,” wrote Mustafa Farooq, president and CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims in a press release Aug. 12. “After speaking to the complainant, it is clear that charges should be laid. No one should be victimized because of what they wear.”
The NCCM is an independent, non-partisan and non-profit organization whose mission is to protect Canadian human rights and civil liberties and challenge discrimination and Islamophobia and is speaking on behalf of the complainant regarding the incident.
“We have reason to believe that there was a strong racial or religious motivation to this incident, but we can't speak more to that,” explained Farooq.
When asked if he could provide an explanation for what made them confident in their assessment, without divulging any evidentiary details that could jeopardize the criminal case, Farooq answered: “We’re lawyers.”
The complainant, who is only willing to be identified as ‘MH’ – which is her personal Twitter handle where the incident first came to public attention – is a black Muslim woman who wears the hijab. She alleged that she was physically and verbally assaulted at the gas station and depanneur in Masham by a customer over the fact that she had been using her hijab as a face covering.
“I walked in to prepay when I was immediately told to leave and get a mask. I told them my face covering was enough,” MH wrote in the opening to her Twitter thread reporting the incident on Aug. 10. “I repeatedly told her to leave me alone but she continued to yell at me. I called her a racist and she came right up to my face in a threatening manner. A bystander escorted her out of the store. I left as well because the clerk was still on the phone with the police.”
MH alleges that the store clerk, “who wasn’t wearing a mask properly,” was on the phone to police “within 45 seconds” of her entering the store.
“[The cashier] told me to leave, and I reiterated that my nose and mouth were covered,” MH wrote.
According to the province’s Ministry of Health and Social Services, "a person who wears a religious sign made of fitted fabric that covers the nose and mouth does not have to wear an additional mask or face covering."
Cashier called after argument started, not before
Martin Sasseville, the owner of the depanneur, said that his cashier, who he describes as a shy and reserved 15-year-old, called the police after the altercation between the two customers had already begun. Sasseville also added that his cashiers don’t need to wear masks while they are at the register as they are separated from customers by a plexiglass shield.
“They were yelling at each other so she made the call to say there was a fight going on, she did her job,” Sasseville said in defence of his employee. “When you're 15 years old, you're scared too, you don't know what's going to happen… she didn’t call [the police] for a mask.”
Sasseville said that the altercation began when MH entered the gas station and the second woman from Masham was paying at the cash, and other than calling the police on a physical altercation taking place inside their store, he believes he and his employee are essentially bystanders in all of this. However, if there’s anyone Sasseville wants to take aim at, it’s social media.
“Now what happens is it comes back on me like I'm the racist and the bad guy. I was an hour away,” Sasseville said. “Money is money and I'm here to work, I don't care who you are, as long as you pay.”
As the story grew legs on social media, the comments began to roll in and Sasseville had to watch in horror as people suggested he and his staff were racist or Islamophobic, and calls were made on Twitter and Facebook to boycott his business.
“For me, a hijab is fine [as a mask], but for that other customer, she didn't think it was right, so she did wrong on that,” Sasseville explained. Sasseville wants it to be clear that his employee only phoned the police after the altercation had begun between the two customers, and that the call was not about the woman’s hijab.
Police to ask prosecutors to lay assault charge
MRC des Collines Police Inspector André Levesque confirmed to The Low Down that the call to the police from the depanneur just before 7 p.m. on Aug. 8, was concerning “two ladies having an argument at the gas station in Masham,” and not a COVID-19 face-covering violation.
“When the officer arrived on the scene, the two women were arguing about the wearing of mandatory masks,” Levesque said.
Levesque said that the officer involved spoke to the two women and witnesses on the scene; he also confirmed that police had reviewed security camera footage, and that evidence had been collected into a file that would be sent to the crown prosecutor’s office in Gatineau to request an assault charge against “one of the ladies.”
“I can't specify which [woman] as the charge has not been authorized by the prosecutor, but I can assure you we have all of the proof that we need for the prosecutor to make an assault charge,” Levesque explained.
Levesque said the file did not contain any information or details about alleged racist behaviour but wished to assure the public that both women involved in the incident would be treated equally.
“Unfortunately, there is information circulating on social media that the police don't take this seriously and this is false,” Levesque said. “We can assure you that we take this very seriously.”