It can sometimes be difficult to discern what constitutes a hate crime, Ottawa's police chief acknowledged Monday as he confirmed his department is investigating a pro-Palestinian protest over the weekend on Parliament Hill. 

Members of the city's hate and bias unit began investigating complaints about the event Saturday, which police characterized as pertaining to the Gaza Strip. 

Video on social media shows a large crowd of protesters filing past the Peace Tower, many carrying Palestinian flags, banners and placards calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

On one such video, a male voice can be heard praising last year's Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and its affiliates that killed 1,200 people in southern Israel.

"Our resistance attacks are proof that we are almost free," says the man, who sounds like he is speaking through a megaphone during the roughly 40-second clip.

"Oct. 7 is proof that we are almost free. Long live Oct. 7, long live the resistance, long live the intifada, long live every form of resistance."

Intifada is an Arabic word with meanings that include shaking off oppression. In English, it is most commonly associated with two periods of particular intensity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which included a series of attacks by Palestinian terrorist groups on public venues inside Israel.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the language on social media, saying it glorifies "antisemitic violence and murder" and noting a distinction between "peaceful protest and hateful intimidation." 

Liberal cabinet ministers expressed similar sentiments, while Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre described the chant as "pro-genocide" and "antisemitic." 

Ottawa police say they have received video of the incident. 

At least one member of Ottawa's Jewish community formally complained to police, said the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a national advocacy group.

Ottawa police Chief Eric Stubbs declined to say Monday whether he considers the statements in question to be antisemitic. 

"What we need to do when it comes to an investigation is to take the context of what was said — the sentence before the sentence, the sentence after," Stubbs said. 

"They'll analyze that and consult with Crown counsel."

Ottawa police have zero tolerance for hate, but because the matter is under investigation, it would be inappropriate for the police chief to weigh in, he added. 

Several activist groups named in online posts advertising the rally did not immediately respond Monday when contacted by The Canadian Press.

Stubbs said he expects to get details in "due course" about how police handled the protest, There are different factors police consider in such circumstances, he added. 

Protests about the Israel-Hamas conflict can be particularly complex for officers trying to stay neutral and respect the public's right to free expression, Stubbs said. 

If police observe an "obvious" hate crime, they can take action immediately, but sometimes it's not always clear right away, and police officers often don't see or hear everything, he added. 

"I can tell you this: in this particular incident, I watched the video, you know, three or four or five times still trying to listen to understand exactly the words that were said and trying to consume it myself." 

Canadian Jewish leaders have repeatedly called on police to take more action against protests that have become commonplace since last fall. 

The tactics police use for such events are often ineffective, said Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who is Jewish. 

"It has actually empowered the haters," Housefather posted on X. "We need police (and) universities across North America to use a more active approach."

A spokesperson confirmed the city did not receive any permit requests for the protest, but having one is not technically necessary, given that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right to free assembly. 

Amira Elghawaby, the federal special representative on combating Islamophobia, called the comments "problematic," but insisted they do not represent the majority of Palestinian supporters.

"A few individual protesters engaged in problematic speech; this is unacceptable and contrary to our shared values," wrote on X.

"What is also concerning are deliberate efforts to smear all protesters with one brush, suggesting that anyone calling on Canada to uphold and protect international humanitarian law is aligned with terrorism."

The federal envoy for combating antisemitism, Deborah Lyons, also denounced the rhetoric.

"Societal reluctance to deal with the normalization of antisemitism and glorification of terror allows for words to turn to violence," Lyons posted. 

"Why would any peace-loving Canadian chant this phrase?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2024.