Updated on 3/30/2022
Elizabeth Simons and Peter Smith
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Chris Elston (centre) and Frank Spiegelberg (right). Source: Twitter, Facebook
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article alleged that Mr. Spiegelberg's spouse had protested against transgender children and had taken part in anti-trans activism. These statements were false. We apologize unreservedly for their publication and for any harm they caused.
When Chris Elston appeared outside a Toronto school, reportedly filming people, houses, and attempting to talk to students, he was not alone.
Outside the east-end school, Elston stood under his signature sandwich board signs. "Billboard Chris,” as Elston often refers to himself, more often than not protests alone. In Toronto, however, Elston had support from a man who has been identified as Frank Spiegelberg, a paramedic with Simcoe County, a community north of the Greater Toronto Area.
“I am absolutely terrified of that man,” a parent who did not wish to be identified told the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. They also described Spiegelberg specifically as “angry” and said he was “calling out, goading people” during the protests.
Spiegelberg declined to comment on this article, citing a current investigation being conducted by his employer. On social media, however, he has made little attempts to hide his views or actions, which appear to be centred around opposition to gender affirming care for trans youth.
12/14/2021 UPDATE: Frank Spiegelberg has denied harbouring an animus towards or demeaning "trans persons or persons experiencing gender dysphoria" through his lawyer, and has declined to comment further.
“I’m a parent who very much welcomes Chris and stood by him for two of those afternoons,” he said in response to Member of Provincial Parliament Dr. Rima Berns-McGown calling out the three-day school protest. “Get it right before you spout lies in our #onpoli government. Shame on you.”
Posts from the paramedic to Twitter show that he primarily uses his account to engage with people around issues of trans rights. Besides sharing messages from anti-trans organizations, figures, and media, he has made repeated derogatory statements about trans people.
“Cutting off healthy body parts is not medically necessary, it is definitely mutilation,” he wrote in response to an account that defended trans people’s rights to undergo medical procedures.
Photos also posted to his account indicate he was part of a protest held outside Toronto’s SickKids hospital.
Other images from Spiegelberg’s Facebook show him standing with Elston on two separate occasions earlier this year in Toronto.
Frank Spiegelberg confirmed in comments on his Facebook page that he is the Canadian coordinator for an organization called Parents of ROGD Kids. According to its website, the group claims a number of causes are responsible for gender dysphoria, including being the victim of sexual assault, autism, mental illness, or a sexual fetish.
On one section of the website, the organization encourages parents to “be extremely wary” of mental health professionals who wish to treat their children alone, as they may “encourage your child [to transition] behind your back.” In the same section, the organization claims that there is no evidence that transition reduces risk of suicide for gender nonconforming youth. In reality, gender affirming care has been proven to reduce the risk of youth suicide.
"(Pseudo)science has become an incredibly powerful rhetorical instrument as a result of the rise of medicine and science as a value-neutral arbiter of truth, replacing religion and law in this role many decades ago," law and bioethics scholar Florence Ashley told the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
"They can claim not to be transphobic, pointing to a scientific-sounding theory as evidence that their concerns are justified and therefore value-neutral."
Also in attendance during the Ottawa protests with Elston was an individual identified on a since-deleted Linkedin account as Chanel Pfahl, a secondary school teacher in the Conseil scolaire catholique MonAvenir, an Ontario Catholic school board.
Chris Elston with Chanel Pfahl in Ottawa. Source: Twitter
The science teacher repeatedly posts and retweets anti-trans statements, fear-mongering about “Critical Race Theory,” and far-right media figures on her Twitter account.
Pfahl did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. We will update accordingly.
Elston typically records his protests both through his cellphone and a body-worn camera. Having in the past been both accused of assault and on other occasions saying he was a victim, the cameras are deployed to show his 35,000 person following the alleged perpetrators and serve as a record of the dialogue he chooses to engage in with willing participants.
Elson chose the school after “leaked” footage of instruction about gender identity received some mainstream media attention.
During Elston’s appearance in Toronto, some neighbours took it upon themselves to put up flags showing support for the LGBTQ2S+ community. According to a parent, Elston responded by walking the streets, filming the properties.
“Drawing that kind of fervour to an elementary school is absolutely inappropriate, which is why we have asked our MPP to table a motion to put a safe zone around schools, to move protests 150 meters away from a school,” said Kat Lanteigne, whose child attends the targetted school. “[That] does not include the right for teachers to protest or for a protest the students would have. It just means that we know that we don't want to draw that kind of conflict that close to young children and to students.
“And they keep yelling at you [to] just have a conversation. That's vexatious, that's harassment. And so their intent was to come in and create that kind of instability in our community, specifically directed very specifically directed at trans people."
When reached for comment, the Toronto Police Service indicated their “Hate Crime Unit will be reviewing the occurrence.”
Strong Community Response in the Capital
Elston appeared outside two more schools the following week in Ottawa. There he was met with a much larger on-the-ground response.
Wearing his signature sandwich board, Elston was confronted by a crowd of demonstrators opposed to his message. Surrounding Elston, and using everything from umbrellas to blankets, to large signs of their own, counter-protesters recorded and jeered at the BC insurance salesman.
"We were happy to see such a big turnout to counter the hateful message of transphobic bigot Chris Elston. The Ottawa community was loud and clear - he is not welcome here," Sam Hersh, a board member of the advocacy group Horizon Ottawa, said in a statement.
Footage and pictures from the event also show that at least two Ottawa city councillors -- Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney -- in attendance, as well as Member of Provincial Parliament Joel Harden.
“Transphobic organizing at our primary and secondary schools is some of the most insidious anti-trans hate out there,“ said Christian, a lead organizer with Rainbow Carleton. “Their points are based on misinformation and eye-catching hyperbole, and their rhetoric harms the already vulnerable trans youth population.”
“Rainbow Carleton is proud to have been able to organize a counter-protest to show Chris that the community here in Ottawa will not accept him peddling hate to or at our students, and that all of us are committed to protecting trans kids.”
After becoming a regular fixture on Vancouver’s Granville Street, Elston, an insurance salesman, has made a name for himself as an anti-trans advocate. Carving a niche for himself as a provocative and often single-man protest, his activism has amassed a prominent Twitter following and international support.
He has a knack for generating headlines, most successfully garnering his initial attention with the purchase of large billboards that promote Harry Potter author and anti-trans mouthpiece JK Rowling.