One week after the death of Heather Heyer who was run down while protesting white nationalism in Charlottesville, people took to the street in Canada to counter far-right extremism.
It was a weekend where far-right groups were vastly outnumbered by people repulsed by their views. However, some violent actions by a few people in one of the two major street protests stole the spotlight.
The first of the two major rallies in Canada took place in Vancouver, where a group of protestors met a small Worldwide Coalition Against Islam rally with extreme numbers and a peaceful protest. The majority of the far-right group didn’t even attend the rally and the few who did were met with debate and ridicule. This was held up—much like the Boston protest in America—as an example of how to counter far-right extremism.
The next day, across the country in Quebec City—the place where earlier this year six Muslim men were shot dead when praying—a different story was told. The far-right and anti-immigration group, La Meute, assembled several hundred members and attempted to have a rally against the over 10,000 migrants who have crossed the border this summer. This group, like the one in Vancouver, was also met with counter protesters that numbered upwards of 1,000.
These counter-protesters pinned La Meute into an underground garage for several hours.
While there was still distance between the two groups, a select handful of protesters started using black bloc tactics against the anti-riot police. A dumpster was lit on fire and pushed towards police, wine bottles were thrown, chairs were smashed and thrown, and a Global videographer had his camera smashed. Things got out of hand enough that the counter-protest was deemed illegal. In the end, one protester was arrested and several police officers were treated after being exposed to a chemical irritant. However, that didn’t end the anti-immigration protest.
A few hours after the brouhaha, La Meute emerged from their underground hideout and, well after it was originally planned, finally marched. Many, in both the press and far-right Canadian eco-system, declared this as a PR victory for La Meute. This is something that writer and activist Nora Loreto, who attended the rally, calls ridiculous.
“I’ve never heard of people being stuck in a parking garage for four and a half hours as a victory but somehow we have this view because a dumpster was set on fire and some people smashed some chairs, that all of a sudden nothing else matters other than the fact that La Meute won,” Loreto told VICE.
“There is a question of proportionality here that was ignored to focus on the acts of two or three people at the expense of close to a thousand saying ‘Get out of our city, La Meute doesn’t represent our city.'”
Loreto estimated that there was almost 1,000 people at the counter-protest and that it was the “largest gathering since the Quebec Mosque shooting.” She said the violence espoused in the rally came from a tiny minority of the protestors.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and the Quebec Minister of Municipal Affairs tweeted out statements condemning the violence in Quebec City. Couillard’s tweet said “we condemn violence and intimidation. We live in a democracy where respect must be the norm and not the exception.”
One counter protester, who talked to VICE on the condition of anonymity, attended the rallies and saw the bursts of violence first hand, he said he was divided in regards to what happened at the rally. It isn’t that he is necessarily against black bloc tactics but that some of what occurred this weekend was “fundamentally counterproductive” to their movement.
“Things like hurting innocent people and hurting the media, those are things that I would not align myself with,” he told VICE.
“I think it’s not useful to the construction of bigger movements towards more anti-racism in our society and the media will use this against us and victimize La Meute and other extreme right-wing groups because of some of our actions.”
The protester added that he’s actually not against the use of violence as a tactic and even, in some cases, recommends using it against right-wing extremist groups but that the “violence was used in an un-useful manner for the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement.” This sentiment was mirrored by the spokesmen for La Meute when speaking to VICE News reporter Simon Coutu on Sunday. The spokesmen, Sylvain Brouillette, painted La Meute as “defenders of free speech” and stated that the “[the counter protestors’] violence helps us.”
Ryan Scrivens, an academic who has been studying far-right extremism for several years and published a story in the Globe and Mail today on how to combat the movement, said that the rallies in Quebec City and Vancouver showed glaring examples of how to and how not to combat right-wing extremism.
“When you compare how Quebec City and Vancouver counter-protestors responded to the rallies held by anti-Muslim groups, Quebec City in many respects blew it. Vancouver counter-protestors were peaceful while those in Quebec City were antagonistic,” Scrivens told VICE.
“These are but two examples of how to respond to hatred and how not to respond to hatred.”
While the key take-away from this weekend was the sheer amount of people who are opposed to far-right extremism in Canada—both rallies had counter-protesters outnumber the far-right protesters by absurd margins—it also showed how easily this narrative can be lost when violence occurs.
“If anything it was a victory for the side of Quebecers that say ‘we are against this hate’ because we haven’t had this kind of amazing showing since January,” said Loreto. “You can say that was a victory for a lot of measures: new people came out, there was a lot of families, there was faces I’ve never seen before, people were mobilized, there was organizations in the streets, there was religious groups in the streets.”
“That was the victory, and instead the line from the press is ‘actually anti-immigration, white supremacist Quebecers won yesterday’ because somebody smashed some chairs.”
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.