What's more shocking? The fact that on November 25, 2017, approximately 500 members of several right-wing groups gathered and marched through the streets of Quebec City under police protection, while counter-demonstrators opposed to racism and Islamophobia were pepper-sprayed, pushed back and subjected to mass arrests?
Or that two days later Quebec City's mayor spoke out -- but not about the unbalanced policing on that cold and dark Saturday? Instead, Régis Labeaume said, "there were virtuous people on both sides," and decried the large bill the taxpayers would be saddled with for policing as a result of the opposing sides "coming to amuse themselves in Quebec City."
This fits with other recent statements by Labeaume, such as that "there is a big danger in being disconnected from the population and to not see that the extreme-right discourse is an ideological refuge for a lot of people. People who don't all have doctorates. Very ordinary people. People who are disgusted."
As an eyewitness to the November 25 events, I'm aghast at the mayor's blatant defence of the right-wing and of the violence against the people protesting them. Doubly so due to the fact that the far right also mustered in large numbers in Quebec in March and in August -- as well as recently in other cities such as London, Ont., Toronto, Calgary and, most infamously, Charlottesville, North Carolina -- and that these gatherings are often met with very muted reactions from politicians.
I'm in solid company: on November 28, hate-crimes expert Barbara Perry told CBC Radio's The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti she is concerned about the lack of condemnation by politicians of the far right's increasing muscle-flexing.
"I understand that [Quebec premier Philippe] Couillard opted to make no comment about the far-right rally this [past] weekend [in Quebec City]. And I think that that's an important place to start [for Quebec to do things differently] -- for political leaders to take a stand against racism and Islamophobia and xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, whatever the case may be, in their communities," said Perry, a social sciences and humanities professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa.
Tremonti also spoke with CBC News reporter Jonathan Montpetit about the previous weekend's events. Montpetit, who also had reported about the events of November 25, said this was the first time the groups La Meute (French for "wolf pack") and Storm Alliance (an offshoot of the Soldiers of Odin) had joined forces at one demonstration.
Montpetit told Tremonti that the police protection of these groups was due to the police having had extensive dialogue with La Meute in advance of the day's protest. The counter-protesters only told the police that they were going to have a counter-demonstration but didn't go into any detail, he said.
"What happened on the day of the protest is that police provided a security cordon around the far-right demonstration," said Montpetit. "The problematic element is that they effectively provide this cordon around La Meute, but then you had all these other really more radical groups [including the "Three Percenters"] kind of join up at that protective area and the police then pushed back the counter-protesters to allow the far right to protest in this spot that they kind of signal they wanted to protest."
This may seem to be a reasonable portrayal of events. However, the protection of far-right demonstrators by police didn't just happen this month in Quebec City. It has occurred, for example, in Toronto several times this year: right-wing extremist groups such as the Soldiers of Odin and the Proud Boys have enjoyed police protection when they gather monthly in front of Toronto's City Hall, sometimes attacking counter-protesters. The police formed a protective ring around them on at least two of these occasions. At the same time, police have curtailed the rights of counter-protesters and in some cases arrested them.
In Quebec City on November 25, La Meute, Storm Alliance and other right-wing groups gathered in a park. They then marched a few blocks to the front of the Quebec legislature, where "antifa" groups and individuals had been having a peaceful counter-protest. A short time later, after the counter-protest was declared illegal by police only an hour after it began, the heavily armed local and provincial police -- accompanied by attack dogs -- forcefully pushed back the anti-racists with pepper spray, shields and batons. Simultaneously, members of the far-right group Atalante Québec showed up in the vicinity for a short time. Police were close by but left them alone.
The counter-protesters were forced to back out of the area where they'd been gathered, resorting to throwing snowballs at the police and chanting slogans such as, "La police au service des riches et les fascistes." ("The police at the service of the rich and the fascists.") The police then chased some of the anti-racist individuals through the streets and alleys, arresting a total of 44 counter-protesters throughout the day.
Alternative media such as Madoc, Sub.Media and Concordia University's The Link provided a more accurate documenting of the November 25 events than the mainstream media. This also has been the case for previous clashes, with the mainstream media often giving a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the right-wing groups' positions and actions.
Two days later, on November 27, Mayor Labeaume of Quebec City complained only about the cost of policing the demonstration and counter-demonstration on November 25, and how the events marred the city's public image.
"It will cost us double of the last time [Aug. 20, 2017] -- at least $150,000 to $200,000 -- so we thank them for coming to amuse themselves in Quebec City. It will cost the rest of us a lot," Labeaume told Radio-Canada as an aside at a press conference. "There were virtuous people on one side and, on the other was an [anti-racist] quasi-militia. Let me tell you that they [the anti-racists] think pretty highly of themselves."
He added: "It is very, very bad for the image of Quebec City."
Axtli Viau, an activist who was part of the November 25 counter-protest, said in an interview with rabble.ca that although there has been strong nationalism in Quebec for more than 50 years, the right-wing's numbers and the cadence of their protests are increasing fast.
"So-called Canada wants to be seen as a place of neutrality and a welcoming place for people in need from other countries, but those right-wing, nationalist groups are promoting fear and moving onto hatred of anybody who's not from here," Viau noted.
History is replete with examples of right-wing groups using fear-mongering and xenophobia -- together with complicity by police, politicians and media -- to gain massive strength. If we don't turn our attention to what's happening here and now we may soon experience a repeat.
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