A year and a half after a well-known anti-Muslim agitator was videotaped claiming anyone who eats at a popular GTA Middle Eastern restaurant chain had to be a “Jihadist” who rapes their wife, he is admitting his comments were “defamatory and disparaging” and is apologizing to the Muslim-Canadian businessman who owns the chain.
Ranendra (Ron) Banerjee’s “unqualified apology” — which he delivered both in writing and as a videotaped statement released Monday — comes as part of a Dec. 7 settlement agreement in a defamation lawsuit launched last year by Mohamad Fakih, owner of Paramount Fine Foods.
The settlement also includes a confidential cash payment and $100,000 “consent to judgment,” meaning Banerjee will be liable for that amount if he ever makes similar comments against Fakih, his family or his business.
“I have learned that it was wrong to attack Mr. Fakih because of his religion or where he is from. Such hate has no place in Canada and I will not make public comments of this nature in the future,” Banerjee said in his videotaped apology, reading from a sheet of paper.
“I hope everyone seeing or reading this apology learns from my mistake.”
For Fakih and his lawyers, the settlement with Banerjee — one of the GTA’s most prominent fixtures at anti-Muslim rallies — marks a significant victory in the fight against hate speech and growing Islamophobia in Canada.
“I’m pleased with this apology,” Fakih said in a statement Monday. “It sends a strong message that people cannot get away with defaming others and sharing fabricated statements online that risk people’s sense of safety and well-being.
“I can tell you I have been very concerned for my family since this whole ordeal began and continue to be worried,” he continued. “I am grateful that I was able to confront this hatred, though it has taken a significant emotional toll.”
The settlement comes after a Superior Court judge this spring rejected Banerjee’s attempts to quash the lawsuit.
Banerjee previously argued his July 20, 2017 comments — which he made at a protest at a Paramount location in Mississauga where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was attending a fundraiser — related to the federal government’s $10.5 million settlement payment to Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr.
His comments were filmed and widely disseminated online, including by the website FreedomReport.ca, operated by anti-Islam provocateur Kevin Johnston, who also attended the protest and is named in Fakih’s defamation lawsuit, filed August 2017. The case against Johnston is proceeding separately and will be next heard in April 2019.
In his motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Banerjee invoked Ontario’s anti-SLAPP legislation, a 2015 law designed to stop strategic lawsuits aimed at stifling free expression in matters of public interest.
In his June 20 ruling, Justice Shaun Nakatsuru ruled the lawsuit should go ahead because Banerjee’s comments “involve hallmarks of hate” and do not relate to a matter of public interest.
In an emailed statement, Banerjee’s lawyer Lorne Honickman said that he and his client were unable to comment on the settlement, which is subject to confidentiality agreements. He said Banerjee is “very happy the action against him has been settled and he looks forward to continue to do the good work that he does.”
Banerjee is affiliated with groups like Rise Canada and Canadian Hindu Advocacy, both of which have been connected to anti-Islam commentary and protests. According to Nakatsuru’s ruling from June, Banerjee has made several videotaped statements in the past in which he describes Islam as evil and wicked and says Muslims should be banned from civilized countries around the world.
Nakatsuru wrote Banerjee also administers several Twitter accounts that have made statements saying Muslims are rotten from the time they are born and “a dead Muslim is no great loss but a net gain for humanity.”
Banerjee previously testified he “may or may not have written those tweets.”
On Monday, Fakih celebrated his settlement with Banerjee by making a $25,000 donation to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit that monitors and studies hate activity.
According to Fakih’s lawyer, Jonathan Lisus, his client’s settlement with Banerjee sends a strong message that Canadian courts can be an effective venue for holding hatred to account. There is a dividing line between free speech and hate speech, he said.
“I think it’s safe to assume that Mr. Banerjee has learned his lesson and understands that he will be held accountable,” Lisus said.
“People who take … to the anonymity and power of social media to make hateful comments and undermine core cultural values of a free society can and will be held to account,” he continued. “It’s not open season with speech; there are limits.”
Lisus said Fakih has now filed for a summary judgment in his ongoing lawsuit against Johnston.
In his ruling from June, Nakatsuru described Johnston’s statements, which agreed with Banerjee’s claim that Paramount patrons would only be allowed in if they “raped your wife at least a few times” — “Someone else’s wife. Not your wife,” Johnston said, according to the ruling — and suggested the restaurant was “up to something nefarious” and raises money for “terrorist ilk.”
In a statement of defence, Johnston denied the allegations and said any assertion he has “ever promoted hate is a fabrication.”
Johnston, who recently finished second in the mayoral race in Mississauga, with 13.5 per cent of the vote, is facing a hate crime charge relating to multiple alleged incidents involving online commentary targeting Muslims, according to Peel Regional Police.
He has previously drawn headlines and criticism for opposing the construction of a mosque in Meadowvale and offering a $1,000 reward for recordings that secretly capture Muslim students praying at school.
In his original statement of claim from August 2017, Fakih wrote that Banerjee and Johnston’s “false and maliciously-published defamatory words” targeted him as a Muslim. Fakih, who is originally from Lebanon, opened his first Paramount location in 2007 and his restaurant chain has since become a “Canadian success story,” he wrote in his claim.
Despite his current reputation as a “Muslim community leader and a Canadian civil leader” involved with several philanthropic efforts — which include supporting Syrian refugees and offering to pay for the funerals of the men killed in last year’s deadly mosque attack in Quebec City — “the effects of false accusations of terrorist activity are less readily overcome by persons of Middle Eastern and Muslim origin,” his claim stated.
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar