CANADA: Latest Burqa Bank Robber isn't the first

Acting Sgt. Anthony Skinner of the Ottawa police robbery unit estimated that over the past six months, there have been upwards of five similar incidents in the city in which a man used a Muslim woman’s religious garment as a disguise.

Ottawa CitizenSkinner said a meeting will be held early next week to compile and compare information, and to try to determine if the robberies are related.

In the Thursday robbery, Sgt. Mark Myers said the man, who wore a blue robe and a head scarf concealing his mouth and nose, passed a note demanding money to a bank teller at the Scotiabank branch at the Pinecrest Mall at about noon.

The teller handed over an undisclosed amount of cash and the suspect then fled the bank, heading eastbound on foot.

Myers said that since the summer, there have been other robberies in Ottawa involving male suspects using Muslim women’s religious garments as disguises. He said police are confident the suspect in the latest case is a man because at one point during the robbery he spoke in a masculine voice.

Wahida Valiante, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said veiled Muslim women already face intolerance and discrimination and cases like this only make matters worse.

“The act of whoever did that is not very good for the Muslim community,” she said. “Already there is so much hype about Muslims and Islam and terrorism.” (Not hype, truth)

A small minority of Muslim women wear veils that obscure their facial features in public. The garb has been the source of international controversy, with some arguing it can pose security and human rights concerns.

A video surfaced in August that showed women wearing a head-to-toe covering called a niqab were not asked to lift their face veil to be identified by airport security in Montreal. Quebec banned women from wearing face coverings while receiving or providing government services last spring.

Valiante said face-covering veils are no more of a security concern than anything else that can be used to obscure a person’s identity, such as ski masks or nylon stockings. “People have been known to go dressed up as Santa and rob banks,” she said.

Myers said police were focusing their attention on the robberies, not what the man was wearing. “It’s obviously a concern because he’s doing robberies. You have a male wearing a hijab, but he’s just doing it to disguise himself.”

Thursday’s bank robbery will refocus police attention on the similar crimes this summer, he said. “This will put it back on the radar.”

The three or four customers in the bank at the time were uninjured. The bank remained closed for the rest of the day.

“We are thankful that our employees and our customers who were in the branch at the time are safe,” said Ann Derabbie, a Bank of Nova Scotia spokeswoman in Toronto. “We will be offering counselling support (to employees) should any of them need it.”

Police described the suspect as male with dark skin, dark eyes and bushy eyebrows, standing about five-foot-10 with a slim build. He was wearing what police described as a dark blue hijab with designs around the head and neck and a long, dark-blue robe. The suspect spoke English with a slight accent.