OPINION
07/13/2019 13:50 EDT | Updated 07/15/2019 16:26 EDT

Here's What Canada Can Learn From Hamilton, Ont.'s Far-Right Problem

When fascists believe a city and its police are on their side, they feel emboldened to act more aggressively.

Hamilton, Ont. has become fertile ground for right-wing extremists, and city leaders have so far demonstrated themselves to be profoundly ill-equipped to respond effectively. A cascade of policy failures and glaring missteps have exposed a rift between the city and its most vulnerable constituents. 

The dynamics playing out here are symptomatic of a broader movement across Canada insinuating itself into politics at every level. We cannot afford to ignore the danger of fascist movements, and recent events in Hamilton offer a poignant case study for all Canadian cities in how not to respond to the growing threat.

Ryan McGreal
Storm clouds gather over Hamilton City Hall.

The modern fascism we see across Canada may be more decentralized than its historical iterations, but it still winds together authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, corporatism and violence to fearmonger, scapegoat, dehumanize and displace marginalized people.

Fascist groups hijack existing right-wing populist movements — like the Yellow Vest group, which has inspired a local chapter in Hamilton — to extend their reach. They gain legitimacy when establishment right-wing parties blow the dog-whistle, believing they can pander for votes without losing control — like Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer uncritically praising the xenophobic “United We Roll” convoy.

Groups like Yellow Vests and Proud Boys recognize that the term “fascism” is a non-starter for most people. Instead, they engage widely in projection and gaslighting, insisting their beliefs are moderate and their opponents are the ones expressing intolerance. Likewise, they co-opt the language of rights to claim the people denouncing them and opposing their violence are the real fascists, feeding a “both sides” narrative in mainstream media that casts them as victims.

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Right-wing protestors across the street from Hamilton City Hall on Saturday, July 13, 2019.

It seems strange that we should have to spell out the fact that standing up to people who want you dead is different than attacking people because they exist. Yet a 2017 media analysis of six major Canadian dailies found that they condemned anti-fascists almost as strongly as they condemned fascists.

So, how is this playing out in Hamilton?

‘The city has been playing right into the fascists’ hands’

Over the past year, the City of Hamilton has made crucial mistakes in dealing with this threat. The city has employed fascists; bought into a narrative framing fascists as victims, and anti-fascists and minorities as aggressors; and approved draft policy to combat extremism which will actually punish legitimate dissent and resistance.

In other words, the city has been playing right into the fascists’ hands.

Last fall, Hamilton resident Craig Burley learned that former white supremacist leader Marc Lemire was working for the city. A Vice investigation confirmed that Lemire was indeed a network analyst in Hamilton’s employ since the early 2000s. Lemire is the former head of the notorious Heritage Front and worked as the webmaster for neo-Nazi Paul Fromm (who ran unsuccessfully for the city’s mayor in 2018) and Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a pioneer in using the internet to disseminate hate literature and recruit members. 

Matthew Green
A member of the far-right Proud Boys group in Hamilton on June 22, 2019.

Public outrage forced city council into action, and the city manager hired an outside consultant to investigate. For many Hamiltonians, it was a wake-up call begging numerous questions. What kind of information did Lemire have access to? What is a high-profile fascist doing on the city’s payroll? Who else does the city employ that we don’t know about?

Since last December, a loose coalition of right-wing extremists began demonstrating in front of city hall each Saturday, comprising members of Yellow Vests, Soldiers of Odin, Proud Boys, the Canadian Nationalist Party, Three Percenters and Pegida, alarming hate group observers and setting the LGBTQ community on edge at the beginning of the city’s Pride celebrations.

The Pride festival itself turned violent when religious extremists, joined by Yellow Vesters from the city hall protest, tried to march on the participants while waving signs and shouting hateful slogans. A witness suggested that fascists were met by anti-fascist counterprotestors, who “more [acted] in self defence and protection” as right-wingers started shoving, grabbing and punching. One thug wearing homemade armour smashed several people in the face with a helmet.

But when the police finally made an arrest a week later, it was trans activist Cedar Hopperton. Police allege Hopperton violated parole by taking part in the Pride protests, an account disputed by friends and supporters.

They delivered a withering rebuke of the police at a community meeting a few days after the festival, accusing them of targeting the queer community and arguing that marginalized people must learn to protect themselves. Instead of relying on police for protection, they said, “let’s figure out how to use measured force ourselves and figure out when it’s appropriate to do so.” 

Ryan McGreal
A list of people killed by fascists written in chalk on the forecourt of Hamilton City Hall on Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Hopperton was an easy target for the police, a polarizing figure who was involved in a March 2018 riot in which anarchists marched through a southwest Hamilton neighbourhood, throwing rocks through windows and shooting fireworks. Hopperton was on parole from that incident, and the police argued the speech constituted a failure to keep the peace.

Arresting Hopperton shifted the narrative around the Pride attack by conflating the anti-fascists at the event with the anarchists who had rioted a year earlier, a sore spot for many Hamiltonians. Suddenly it was easier to imagine that the anti-fascists were at least partly to blame for the violence.

In all, four of the five people arrested since Pride day have been anti-fascists. Only the fifth arrest was actually a member of the fascist attackers — the so-called “helmet guy” smashing people in the face.

At least one councillor bought into the fascist-friendly narrative. A city council meeting on June 26 went sideways after Councillor Sam Merulla denounced the defending anti-fascists while counselling sympathy for the attackers. When members of the gallery erupted in outrage, Merulla openly goaded them until Mayor Fred Eisenberger shut down the meeting and ejected the protesters.

When fascists are seen as victims, the apparatus of the state can easily be used to clear a path for them. The queer community in Hamilton is traumatized by this ordeal and how Hamilton police seemed to protect their attackers. And it’s not just in Hamilton. 

Steve Russell via Getty Images
Several far-right groups held an anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rally in Toronto on March 23, 2019. Several hundred counter protesters stopped them from marching.

Toronto Police faced sharp criticism last year from anti-hate organizations for appearing to support fascist groups marching while turning a blind eye to their violence and suppressing anti-fascist resistance.

The situation got even messier when activists picketed outside Mayor Eisenberger’s house early in the morning on June 28, shouting obscenities and placing signs that read, “The mayor doesn’t care about queer people.”

In what should have been an opportunity to safeguard the city’s vulnerable people, the city’s general issues committee approved a new draft policy ostensibly aimed at deterring hate groups. But the list of prohibited activities includes: distributing pamphlets, using megaphones or amplifiers, creating a nuisance, using chalk, fundraising for charity, and installing signs or banners. All this absurd policy would do is suppress legitimate protest and dissent.

Throughout this mess, council and the police have scapegoated and targeted the community they are supposed to protect while excusing the fascists, suggesting both sides are at fault for the violence and responding to pointed critiques in a tone-deaf manner.

The fascists themselves couldn’t be happier. This past Saturday, one of the right-wing protesters outside City Hall held up signs reading, “We Love Hamilton Mayor” and “Thank You To Hamilton Police.”

City civic leaders and authorities owe the communities they serve a real commitment to good faith and fair dealing. Without that, they lose the moral legitimacy to do their jobs. 

When the fascists believe the city and police are on their side, and the public is split over who is to blame for violence, more of these groups come out of the woodwork and feel emboldened to act more aggressively. So far, fascists have enjoyed considerable success at legitimizing their agenda in the public discourse while the apparatus of Hamilton’s civic authority has consistently turned against their victims.

The only thing that has held them in check has been coordinated, direct action from anti-fascists. Over the past few weeks, large and diverse counter-protests at city hall have thwarted the Yellow Vest demonstrations, sending a clear message that many Hamiltonians recognize the danger and are willing to stand in solidarity and support for vulnerable communities.

The lesson for other cities confronting a similar threat is threefold. First, be proactive. Don’t wait until the fascists are already established and growing bold before you decide to do something about it.

Second, don’t allow the fascists to hijack the narrative with “both sides” false equivalence. Ensure that your city council and police department are engaging meaningfully and constructively with marginalized and under-represented communities. Hamilton City Council recently missed such an opportunity by declining to bring diverse perspectives to its police services board this past April.

Finally, make sure your policy empowers citizens of good faith to stand together in solidarity against hate. Don’t try to punish or prohibit legitimate protest. The people showing up to resist the fascists are the front line of defence for an open society: stop treating them as the enemy.

CORRECTION - July 15, 2019: An earlier version of this opinion article stated new protest rules had been approved by the city. A draft of the rules was approved by the city’s general issues committee.

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