Outnumbered Counter-Protesters Shaken By Hate, But Determined

2SLGBTQIA+ defenders in communities where hate rallies outnumbered counter-protests on Sept. 20 decide how to move forward safely ahead of more scheduled national protests.

Susan v.H. Thompson
Canadian Anti-Hate Network

Source: Denin Lawley/Unsplash

When Sheila Marion showed up on Sept. 20 to counter-protest the anti-2SLGBTQIA+ “One Million March for Children” in Brandon, Manitoba, she was the only one there. 

“I was really quite disappointed. A little crestfallen,” Marion said during an interview.

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Like thousands of others across the country, Marion joined the “One Million Voices for Inclusion” group on Facebook with the goal of opposing the hate and bigotry of the “One Million March for Children.” In multiple Canadian communities from St. John’s to Vancouver, counter-protesters outnumbered those marching against the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. 

But in communities like Marion’s, the opposite was true.

Brandon Pride does not support counter-protesting. Instead, the organization issued a written statement asking people to focus on school board activism and the provincial election. They point out that organizers of the Brandon anti-inclusion march, such as former school board trustee Lorraine Hackenschmidt and Action4Canada supporter Kathy Smitzniuk, are the same people who have been attending school board meetings since April to try to ban books on sexuality and gender identity

“Brandon Pride has been aware of these ‘marches’ for a while now and we are encouraging folks to not engage or arrange a counter-protest…Don't give these bigots that associate with hate and ignorance more attention by helping them spread their anti-2SLGBTQIA+ message disguised as ‘saving the children,’” according to Brandon Pride’s statement. 

Marion doesn’t regret showing up — and she may counter-protest again. 

“If we don’t have somebody there to say something, it’s like giving the other folks permission to proceed with their rhetoric. Which is what it is — it’s not science, it’s not reality, it’s rhetoric,” she says. 

As a trans woman, Marion knew she felt like a different gender from the age of six or seven years old. Growing up in a northern Manitoba mining town, she found little support.

“The absence of role models, of knowledge there was other people like me in the world, left me feeling quite alone. I don’t want kids today to have to go through that,” she says.

Manitoba has since elected a new NDP government, in a major blow to the PC party, who unsuccessfully used the “parental rights” dog whistle during their campaign

The so-called “parental rights” rallies drew big crowds in Regina and Saskatoon on Sept. 20. But Manitoba’s election results and more recent rallies on Oct. 10 show public opinion may not be behind Premier Scott Moe’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause in defiance of a court injunction against the province’s new school pronoun policy. University of Regina Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity took the government to court to get that injunction, saying the policy will out kids, putting them at risk of “devastating and irreparable harm.”

In Red Deer, school trustee Monique LaGrange spoke at the anti-inclusion rally on Sept. 20. LaGrange was recently criticized for a social media post that compared Pride to Nazism. 

“No Pride organizations stood with us,” says two-spirited counter-protest organizer Fran*, whose name has been changed here to protect their identity.

Despite their past experience with protest organizing, Fran feels the vitriol in Red Deer this time was different. 

“I’ve never seen hate like this. We had people who have been assaulted for being gay, as young adults. They said the same.”

“Kids were calling us ‘F-ing pervs’,” Fran says. “Others had ‘kill all the gays’ screamed at us while we walked.”

On the morning of the march, police handed Fran a paper copy of the Hate Crimes Act and told them being called names was not a hate crime. That same day, Fran picked up a call from a blocked number. They say an unknown man on the phone threatened them with death.

The Red Deer counter-protesters were also significantly outnumbered. 

“I will organize again, but safety is my concern. And by phone and verbally, I was told I would [be] lit on fire and hung by a tree,” Fran says. 

As a result, and after a request from police, Fran and others are focusing on creating a safe space for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth during the next “One Million March for Kids” on Oct. 21. They’re holding a “Pride Gathering” the same afternoon with games and crafts.   

Counter-protesters were outnumbered in Calgary too, and videos of some of the speeches there went viral for how hateful they were — including a speech by a child. 

But James Demers of Queer Citizens United wants people to know that is not the full story. 

“From the outside of the protest, it looked like we were outnumbered. But what I saw from the inside was all the results of the organizing we’ve been doing for months,” he says. “The community really showed up.”  

Demers saw people bring out lawn chairs and snacks. Local baristas gave out free hot chocolate and coffee to counter-protesters. A group called the Rainbow Elders was able to connect with young members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Suicide counsellors were on hand to support the mental health of queer and trans youth. 

“One Million March” Calgary organizer Mahmoud Mourra has been organizing smaller-scale weekly protests at Calgary city hall using his “YYC Muslims” Facebook group. As a result, he’s facing a charge of hate-motivated criminal harassment. To counter Mourra’s continued attempts to recruit more of the Muslim community to march against inclusion in schools, the counter-protest group contacted El-Tawid Jums Circle: Calgary Alberta Unity Mosque, who then led the way in reaching out to other Muslims. 

Demers points out the Sept. 20 counter-protest was hardly the first for Calgary, and the people who showed up in person that day as defenders are only a small part of the full support in the city. 

“We’ve been dealing with this every week,” Demers said. “We’ve been organizing for just under a full calendar year related to drag story time.”

Demers says Calgary has the largest and most diverse drag scene in Canada. Many defenders are the supportive and protective parents of queer and trans youth or drag performers.

Thanks to their continuing efforts, drag story time protests have largely been stopped. Demers says tactics like playing copyrighted music to ensure video clips can’t be monetized have successfully stopped far-right media outlets like Rebel News from filming any further content at drag story times in the city. 

Protecting Reading with Royalty with handmade pink wings helped build community and shift the narrative in a more positive direction. A new bylaw banning protests within 100 meters of a library or recreation centre entrance is a major recent win. 

On Oct. 2, days after the Sept. 20 march, defenders successfully outnumbered supporters of speakers Mourra, anti-2SLGBTQIA+ pastor Artur Pawlowski and his sons Dawid and Nathan, and others in front of the Calgary Board of Education office. 

These are successes that can be replicated by other communities, Demers says — especially if the strategies behind these wins are shared across the movement. 

“It’s scary to be isolated,” Demers says. “You are far from alone.”

One of the national organizers of the “One Million Voices for Inclusion” counter-protests, Celeste Trianon, says the safety of counter-protesters is a priority. 

“Your safety comes first,” Trianon says. “You don’t want to put your life at risk. You don’t want to end up becoming a victim.” 

Trianon, Executive Director of the Trans Legal Collective, worked with national organizer Sarah Worthman to release a simple “No Space for Hate” graphic, keep an updated list of counter-protests, and get safety information out over social media as quickly as possible. 

“We were trying to educate people on how to counter-protest safely on the fly within days,” she says.

On Sept. 15, Trianon says they were tracking only 16 counter-protests. Five days later that number had ballooned to between 60 and 70 nationwide.

The group only lists counter-protests where it appears at least 10 people will show up. 

“That was the minimum so that folks would feel safe,” Trianon says.

Other safety recommendations include arriving in groups, wearing a mask, not taking photos of defenders to avoid doxing, and more. 

Unfortunately, even in her own home city of Montreal, Trianon says the counter-protest was ultimately outnumbered. 

“No one was expecting this. So many trans people actually dismissed this kind of protest, not expecting so much hate.” 

Trianon says their movement is now attracting such increased interest they’re having to limit the number of core organizers. She says it’s clear there’s more desire now to mobilize.

“There’s a lot of work which needs to be done. We need to mobilize in the streets more than ever before and send a message that gay and trans people exist. We also need to combat anti- trans disinformation and get the correct info out to the public.” 

“The context around organizing has changed. It’s not going to ever be the same again.”

Trianon says a candlelight vigil for trans remembrance is being organized in Montreal, and groups across the country are gearing up to counter-protest again on Oct. 21. Volunteers have been helping build more organizational structure for the “One Million Voices for Inclusion” counter-protests, including a new website, an email list, and an official social media presence across more platforms.  

As for the idea that counter-protesting gives too much attention to the bigotry of the marches, Trianon says, “Hate will always find a platform anyway. By telling people it’s not acceptable, and hate is not welcome, we actively fight for inclusion.”

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