Canadian Anti-Hate Network Editorial
Image: Dan Collen
For weeks, anti-transgender and anti-2SLGBTQ+ activists have promoted an “Education Over Indoctrination'' protest in Ottawa targeting three schools. This was the first time “Billboard Chris” Elston would be returning to the same school that saw him run off by mostly teenage protesters in October 2021. He would be joined by Josh Alexander, the youth leader of a Christian nationalist movement who was suspended and issued a “non-disciplinary exclusion” from his school because he refused to stop bullying transgender classmates.
They would be organized against by community members and a parent from one of the schools, under the banners of Horizon Ottawa and Community Solidarity Ottawa. They decided to form a human blockade to protect the school community from anti-2SLGBTQ+ harassment. A significant number of counter-demonstrators were union members – others were parents, elected officials, and at least one Christian minister.
These brave and big-hearted members of the Ottawa community won the day. Despite facing violence and the far-right’s best efforts to bring people from far and wide, locals still outnumbered them and held the lines. We should all congratulate them – and emulate their successes elsewhere.
Canada’s far-right movements are anti-democratic and harbour racism, anti-2SLGBTQ+ sentiment, and other forms of hatred. The so-called Freedom Convoy’s origins can be traced back to anti-Muslim organizing that took the the streets to protest M-103, a motion broadly condemning Islamophobia, in early 2017. Having gone through many rebrands and an explosive growth in numbers, they’ve been moving their focus from COVID-19 and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories to attacks on the transgender and 2SLGBTQ+ communities.
About half of the far-right’s energy today is spent on spreading the dangerous and inciting lie that transgender people, drag performers, and often the entire 2SLGBTQ+ community (and allies) are pedophiles or in league with pedophiles. Schools, which they see as a site of this “grooming” (i.e. education that includes 2SLGBTQ+ content) have been one of their big targets.
Christian nationalism – the belief that Canada was founded on authoritarian, conservative Christian values, that these Christian values are superior, and that our laws and government should operate on the basis of their values – is a well funded and influential faction of the far-right movement. The youth-led Save Canada group call themselves Christian nationalists, at one point yelling “Christ is king” at the blockade. The reactionary far-right lobbying group Campaign Life Coalition told their email list to go to the protest.
Multiple experienced demonstrators described to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network some of the violent behaviour from far-right protestors that they witnessed.
Some names have been changed to protect community members.
Shannon*, an organizer with Community Solidarity Ottawa, says Elston’s “goons started shoving me around…and then a big guy punched me in the head two or three times. I fell down after the second or third punch and wasn’t able to fight back, which is probably a good thing as I’d have definitely been arrested if I had done so.”
They have been impaired since the incident, and believe they received a concussion.
Shannon believes that the goal of pushing them around was to capture and clip footage of them getting shoved into somebody so that they could reverse the roles of victim and instigator and spin it as “a violent antifa assault.”
Another community defender compared it to their time playing rugby. Tyler* says the far-right were pushing, kicking shins, and stomping feet when they thought they could get away with it without it being called by the ref (i.e. the cops).
"Violence was not necessarily done when cops weren't looking,” he says, “but rather done in the manner that could be plausibly denied.”
Avery* alleges that a Save Canada leader was engaging in this kind of antagonistic behaviour. “I was standing on the sidewalk filming and he just deliberately walked into me, held up his hands, and acted like I walked into him. The cops didn’t buy it.”
Gary* a non-binary trans person who showed up to support trans students and staff in OCDSB reported to CAHN that they were sexually assaulted while blocking the path of the far-right protesters trying to reach the school. As they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other people, a man reached through a flag and groped them in the chest area while attempting to push past them. When they forcefully told the man not to touch them, a police officer instructed Gary to move as they were not allowed to block the sidewalk.
Gary reported the assault to this same officer, who allegedly replied, “what do you want me to do about it?” They say the same officer then repeatedly yelled at them to let people through.
According to Gary, another community defender tried to report an assault after what Gary and another witness describe as the person being forcefully pushed by somebody carrying a sign popular with fans of Chris Elston. The same officer allegedly interrupted the person reporting the incident to tell his colleague that it wasn't a valid complaint because they had been blocking the sidewalk.
Gary told CAHN, “He wasn't even around at that time. [I] felt like that one police officer was targeting me.”
NDP MPP Joel Harden also took to Twitter to share that he was hit in the face. A content creator with over 450,000 followers (who is described by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism as a conspiracist) quickly claimed Harden was lying. He shared clips from two entirely different moments of the protest - not of the alleged assault - as if they were evidence of something that did or didn't happen at another time that nobody caught on camera.
Toronto 99 blog owner Mark Slapinski took it a step further, calling Harden a pedophile and, in reply, Calgary resident Mark Thomas posted an image with the text “Pedophiles belong in woodchippers.”
Ottawa Councillor Ariel Troster says they saw the incident.
“There were a number of us that were there. We saw the scuffle, we saw pushing, and then we saw either a strike or a punch to the microphone, and then it went up into [Harden’s] face and caught his face,” she told CAHN “It was not the only physical fight that I saw that was instigated by these folks. It was an agitated, violent crowd who were out there.”
Troster and Harden are experienced activists with decades of history in labour organizing before moving onto their current roles. Both said the protest was noticeably hostile.
“It was a very sobering experience. I'll say that,” Troster adds. “I've been an activist for 25 years. I've been to so many demos. I've never seen anything quite like this before.”
Save Canada arrived alongside a man wearing a Diagolon ring who claims to be a former infantryman and brought a large pack with labels suggesting he was carrying an entire IV kit and an automated external defibrillator. Josh spent the protest surrounded by large men apparently providing protection.
The schools held their students inside for the day because of the protest.
One of the disappointing things to come out of the protest last Friday is a now-viral clip of a woman in hijab having her children stomp on Pride flags. This is not representative of the total Muslim community, which includes 2SLGBTQ+ Muslims and Muslims who are allies.
Unfortunately, some on Twitter responded with the suggestion that this Muslim family should go back to their own country. This is Islamophobia and we condemn it. There are plenty of Christians here who feel the exact same way. Where do we send them? The wonderful thing about multiculturalism is that those kids will have opportunities to meet all sorts of people and become kind and open minded adults.
According to Avery, it wasn’t just the protesters they had to worry about:
“As someone who has been to at least six Pride defences in the last year, this was the most violence I have seen from police towards Pride defenders so far.
“The first incident of violence I saw was not from anti-trans demonstrators, but by a police officer who picked up and carried OCDSB chair Lyra Evans. However, many anti-trans demonstrators were violent as well. Many streamers tried to agitate defenders. One reporter first asked around as an ‘independant’ and claimed he had no organizational affiliation. He would later say that he was with Rebel News.”
Avery says that youth with Save Canada were allowed to push into their lines and hit people. MPP Harden said he also saw the far-right demonstrators push their blockades, adding that the police stood by and let it happen. Several complained about a woman holding a bible – the same woman who allegedly hit MPP Harden – hitting others.
Ultimately, four community defenders and a single far-right protester (a racialized youth) were arrested. They were quickly released, and so far no charges have been laid.
Still, this was a win for the community defenders. The far-right wanted to hold their demonstration in front of the schools, while the school day was going on, and were prevented from doing that.
Community Solidarity Ottawa released a statement in the aftermath.
“We call on all community members and political representatives at all levels to fight fascism by:
- Getting your union to pass a motion implementing the recent Canadian Labour Congress motion that calls for unions to create “flying squads”, and getting them to use these flying squads to train and prepare their members to confront fascism in the streets;
- Working with your faith groups (churches, mosques, gurdwaras, synagogues, etc.) to discuss how they are protecting their queer and trans members, and encourage them to show up in the streets to denounce and deny violent homophobia and transphobia;
- Demanding the queer and trans allied organizations you are connected with to denounce these fascist protests, and assist in training and supporting community self-defense plans
- Working with teachers and parents in local schools to create self-defense plans, education about fascist social movements, and pressure their school boards to take active stances against fascism through supporting community efforts;”
For our part, we firmly believe from our time watching these demonstrations, all across Canada, over the better part of the past decade, that large and welcoming counter-protests are one of the most effective tools against far-right organizing.
First, while there are always assaults and scuffles when the far-right is involved, there tends to be less violence when they feel less emboldened, and they tend to feel less emboldened when there’s more people opposing them. There’s strength in numbers.
Second, when they aren’t opposed, things can go bad quickly. In Calgary, for example, there was no blockade for a family-friendly library drag storytime and hate preacher Derek Reimer was able to get into the room with the children, scaring the children and their parents with his erratic behaviour, and it fell on the parents to physically remove him from the room. Reimer has a violent criminal history, and never should have been allowed to get that close.
Third, showing up for a community to be a hedge of protection for them sends a strong signal that they deserve to exist and that their neighbours will stand up for them. It builds solidarity in these dark times.
Finally, when they see that their activism and their ideas are loudly and publicly condemned, and that people are willing to show up and stand up against them, their softer supporters tend to get discouraged. Not always, and not overnight, but we believe it disrupts their organizing.
I often think of a post by a so-called Freedom Convoy supporter in Toronto. They said they took a wrong turn while driving in for a convoy-related protest in the city and ended up on Yonge St. They said that people surrounded their car, gave them the finger and told them to f*** off. As a result, they told their convoy group that they felt like people weren’t supporting what they were doing and that they felt so discouraged that they didn’t think they’d come out again.
That’s great. Let’s all show up, hold the line, and keep giving them the finger.