White supremacists drowned out in Vancouver by bagpiping counter-protest

White supremacists drowned out in Vancouver by bagpiping counter-protest
6 min read
22 August, 2017
Society: Anti-racism campaigners vastly outnumbered far-right activists in Vancouver this weekend, reports Hadani Ditmars.
The counter-protest overwhelmed the original demonstration outside Vancouver's City Hall [StandUpToRacism-Metro-Vancouver/Facebook]

In contrast to violence that marred Quebec City's counter-protest to an anti-immigration rally by far-right group La Meute on Sunday, a rally in Vancouver this weekend remained relatively peaceful.

In the wake of events in Charlottesville, more than 4,000 people came out to Vancouver's City Hall on August 19 to protest against a planned demonstration by various far-right groups including WCAI, the "Worldwide Coalition Against Islam", and a group calling itself the "Cultural Action Party" - a self-described "social conservative" group dedicated to preserving "traditional Canadian heritage" and "English-Canadian identity".

The scene in Vancouver reflected events that took place internationally, with a Canadian twist - native drummers opened the counter-protest and crowds chanted: "No hate, no fear, Nazis are not welcome here."

Activists drowned out the vastly outnumbered racist demonstrators by playing bagpipes and kazoos

Speakers at the counter-protest, spearheaded by Stand Up to Racism Metro Vancouver, included First Nations, Chinese, South Asian, Arab, Jewish and Trans activists. The mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, also spoke of Vancouver's status as a "reconciliation city" - referring specifically to building bridges with indigenous communities - saying: "There's lots of problems around the world. We've got to take care of home base and make sure we're a beacon of positive love and respect."

While there had been initial fears that violence would occur, the event was largely peaceful, although not without some incidents. Scuffles broke out between counter-protesters and anti-immigrant types - although police intervened before arguments became heated, and activists drowned out the vastly outnumbered racist demonstrators by playing bagpipes and kazoos. 

While WCAI organiser Joey De Luca appeared to be a no-show, police arrested a man brandishing a large knife, and infamous Holocaust denier Brian Ruhe - wearing a swastika and performing a Nazi salute - was led away for his own protection amid a crowd of counter-protesters - ironically by an Indian-Canadian Sikh police officer wearing a turban.

But the event was not without controversy. Some mainstream Jewish groups were miffed that Martha Roth of Independent Jewish Voices - one of many speakers - said "the world doesn't need more settler-colonialism", and called for Palestinian sovereignty. Sephardic speaker Annie Ohana also equated Islamophobia with anti-Semitism.

And a group called the Coalition Against Bigotry-Pacific boycotted the event because of concerns about safety, a lack of inclusion of people of colour, and that a counter-protest might legitimise the right-wing groups demonstrating.

According to Coalition Against Bigotry spokesperson Imtiaz Popat, the ad-hoc Stand Up to Racism Metro Vancouver group - who organised the counter-protest in less than a week after events in Charlottesville - did not consult his group, which consists mainly of people of colour.

"They won't work with us or listen to us. They are not at risk. Bigots are also anti-women, anti-trans and queer anti-left and anti-poor. But those with white privilege can hide and we can't. Allowing this counter-protest affects us more and puts us at risk," he said.

Organisers responded, saying: "We recognise that privileged opportunism is present in activist work, as is tokenistic use of the labour and voices of people of colour. To that end, we want to assure folks that we are not a homogenous set - we come from a variety of communities and backgrounds, and we have reached out to many other individuals, communities and groups with the intention of inviting them to speak or otherwise participate at the rally."

Protest organisers also worked with a group called the Peace Bearers, trained to de-escalate any potential violence.

"We had the same Peace Bearers working with us during our protest on March 26 when a half a dozen Soldiers of Odin [a right-wing hate group] violently attacked the protesters while the police watched," says Imtiaz Popat. "The police briefly detained the attackers and then released them as the protest was ending, allowing them to follow and harass the protesters again."

But the crux of the matter, says Popat, is the need to change hate crime legislation.

"Police across Canada have been allowing protests by white supremacists since former Prime Minister Steven Harper repealed section 13 of the Human Rights Code, blurring the line between freedom of speech and hate crimes," he says.

There has been a lack of any political leadership at all levels to call for stronger hate crime legislation to fill the void left by the Harper regime... these white supremacists are not seen as terrorists

While Popat notes that the Canadian government amended anti-terror legislation with bill C-51, controversial with civil libertarians and Muslim-Canadian groups, supposedly to protect Canadians, "they have failed in restoring the Canadian Human Rights Act to protect Canadians from hate crimes".

"There has been a lack of any political leadership at all levels to call for stronger hate crime legislation to fill the void left by the Harper regime," said Popat. "Law enforcers have failed to use any other existing provisions to stop white supremacists from promoting hate propaganda."

If Saturday's foiled right wing demonstration had been a pro-Islamic State group protest, he contends, "it would have been stopped under C51. But these white supremacists are not seen as terrorists".

Long time anti-poverty activist and Order of Canada recipient Jean Swanson, who is running for city council, agreed.

"The original rally we're protesting now shouldn't be happening in the first place," she told the crowd.

"The mayor said we must uphold free speech and allow members of the WCAI - a hate group - to speak and rally. I disagree."

Swanson pointed to precedents such as the recent barring of the Canadian Nationalist Party from gathering on campus at the University of Toronto out of concern for public safety, as well as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's decision to deny a special permit for the WCAI to hold a demonstration.

"We should be treating these organisations the same way here. Free speech does not mean you have a right to hate speech… the right to gather and normalise racism. Free speech does not mean we can let hate groups gather steam, bring in more members and continue to harm and terrorise people."

She also expressed support for making Vancouver a true "sanctuary city" - one where "people who are targeted by white supremacists" are not afraid to go to the police for fear of deportation.

Still, with hate crimes and Islamophobia on the rise nationally, and in a week when residents of one East Vancouver neighbourhood found flyers in their mailboxes promoting a neo-Nazi propaganda film, there were some poignant moments at Saturday's rally.

Mariana Suaifan, a young student and recently arrived Syrian refugee spoke briefly and from the heart, saying "thank you Canada, for giving me a home. I love you."

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars