People reacted, all right: the experiment ended with a punch in the face.
“This is based on the events that happened in Ottawa,” said Omar Albach, a York University student at the start of a YouTube video called Canadians React to Ottawa Shooting Racism. “We’re going to see if people feel safe to be around Muslims or people who look like Muslims.”
In the video, a man named Zakaria Ghanem is dressed in a traditional Muslim gown called a Dishdasha or Thobe, while another man, Devin Giamou, berates him in public and says he wouldn’t feel safe getting onto a bus with him.
Then the reactions pour in from other people waiting for the same bus who don’t know the whole thing is staged.
“You can’t stereotype and judge people by their clothes,” one man says. “Or their nationalities or anything else, you know what I mean?”
One woman says what happened to Cirillo in Ottawa was “awful and tragic,” but doesn’t think “that’s any reason to persecute someone just because of what they’re wearing.”
One man objects to Giamou’s staged racism so much that he punches him square in the face in the video, near the entrance to Hamilton shopping mall Jackson Square.
'This is a social experiment'
“We never expected that,” Albach told CBC Hamilton. “I was standing there filming and just went, ‘Did he just get punched?’”
Albach says he immediately ran over to help, and explained that they were conducting a social experiment — and that no one here was harbouring any racist feelings. “They did apologize and said ‘we just wanted to stick up for the guy.’”
Albach, 18, says he felt compelled to film the video after seeing what happened to Nathan Cirillo, a Hamilton man who was shot last week while on guard at the national war memorial in Ottawa.
“I was really touched by Nathan Cirillo’s death, and I feel like these actions are to be condemned,” he said.
The RCMP says it has evidence that gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was driven by ideological and political motives.
The 32-year-old made a video recording of himself just before last week's attack, the RCMP says, and a source familiar with the investigation told CBC's Chris Hall that Zehaf-Bibeau appears to make specific reference to Canada's foreign policy as motivation for his actions and that he praises Allah in the recording.
Stephen Harper has called Wednesday's shooting a terror attack, and the bloodshed raised fears that Canada is suffering reprisals for joining the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS extremists in Iraq and Syria.
Zehaf-Bibeau also dealt with addiction
But Albach, who is Muslim, cautions against making links to Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions and the Muslim faith. Zehaf-Bibeau told a B.C. judge almost three years ago that he was homeless and wanted to go to jail to help break his drug addiction.
He lived in B.C. in recent years, walking the streets of Vancouver, Burnaby, and Surrey, and may have been staying at a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Vancouver as recently as two weeks ago.
Zehaf-Bibeau was also charged with robbery and uttering threats for an incident in Vancouver on Dec. 16, 2011, which court records indicate may have been an attempt to get help. CBC News obtained the psychiatric assessment and audio recordings of Zehaf-Bibeau's court appearances in Vancouver on Dec. 2011 and Feb. 2012.
The psychiatrist, who met with Zehaf-Bibeau at the Surrey Pre-Trial Centre, found that he was fit to stand trial, and explained some of Zehaf-Bibeau's motivation for wanting to be imprisoned.
"The accused is aware of his charge and possible consequences of conviction. He wants to be in jail, as he believes this is the only way he can overcome his addiction to crack cocaine. He has been a devoted Moslem for seven years, and he believes he must spend time in jail as a sacrifice to pay for his mistakes in the past and he hopes to be a better man when he is eventually released," the psychiatrist wrote on Dec. 18, 2011.
Don't reflect Muslim faith
Albach says he doubts Canadians believe that Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions are reflective of Muslims as a whole — something his video helps prove, he says.
Cynics might say that Albach cherry picked the responses you see in the video, only choosing people who acted in the way he was wanted — but he says that simply isn’t true.
“I know a lot of people edit those things out, but we didn’t.”
As of Wednesday morning, Albach’s video had over 280,000 hits on YouTube. Another viral video he made called Hug a Terrorist from earlier this year has over 332,000 hits on YouTube.