News Canada

Anti-racism demonstrators overshadow planned alt-right rally at Vancouver City Hall

Nick Eagland, POSTMEDIA NETWORK

VANCOUVER — In the end, the organizers of a planned “anti-Islam” rally Saturday in Vancouver only spurred a celebration of diversity, anti-fascism and tolerance of Islam so massive it spilled onto the streets outside Vancouver City Hall and shut down a nearby street.

At the peak of the counter-protest at around 2 p.m., when organizers from the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam Canada and the Cultural Action Party of Canada had been expected to speak out against federal immigration policy, about 4,000 people surrounded city hall, according to a police estimate.

The anti-Islam rally organizers were nowhere to be found.

WCAI Canada president Joey De Luca, who told media this week he was flying to Vancouver from his hometown Calgary for the rally, did not return a request for comment before deadline.

It seemed all but a handful of the 4,000 people at city hall had shown up to speak against the anti-Islam rally, which a Facebook event page indicated was expected to draw two dozen people.

Those with dissenting voices who made themselves heard — about a half dozen men who exercised their Charter right to freedom of expression on public property — took turns engaging in debates with counter-protesters while each was surrounded by dozens more who shouted, "Let him speak," just as often as "Kick him out."

Often, these heated debates were drowned out by the sounds of bagpipes, accordions, saxophones and kazoos, which counter-protesters brought for that purpose.

Police guarded the dissenting speakers, watching that they didn't resort to hate speech or that the debates didn't turn physical. In some cases, when the discourse became too nasty, police escorted these speakers off city hall property to the jeers of the counter-protesters.

The dissenting speakers expressed a range of world views — from advocacy for free speech to hate for Islam and overt displays of Nazism.

Near the statue of Capt. George Vancouver at the north entrance to city hall, a man holding a copy of the Qur'an drew a crowd when he condemned its contents and engaged in a shouting match with a Métis man. The Qur'an hater was escorted away by police.

There was a President Donald Trump supporter wearing a T-shirt marked with the Infowars logo — the far-right U.S. radio show hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — who engaged more calmly in a debate that lasted about an hour, during which a protester showered him with blue sparkles and others screamed at him.

Nearby, another man carried two signs bearing popular images often used by the so-called "alt-right" to troll the left — "Sad Pepe" and the flag of "Kekistan." He appeared thrilled by all the attention he was getting.

Southeast of city hall, a notorious local Holocaust denier, Brian Ruhe, raised his right hand in the Nazi salute as police surrounded him. Ruhe smiled and laughed as counter-protesters shouted anti-Nazi slogans and profanity at him. He was immediately escorted away by police.

WARNING: Video contains graphic language

Sgt. Jason Robillard said officers made five arrests Saturday for breach of the peace, while two other people were escorted away from the rally to "prevent a disturbance." There were no reported assaults or injuries.

Annie Ohana, who with her group Stand Up To Racism Metro Vancouver helped organize the counter-protest, said she felt vindicated after seeing such a turnout for an event that proved mostly peaceful.

Ohana said she faced criticism by those who felt a counter-protest could lead to a violent clash, but said she felt it was important that people spoke out and didn't feel intimidated.

Scores of police and other first responders were stationed throughout city hall property.

Ohana said she respected the need to protect people's right to freedom of expression "within reasonable limits of the law," and said she hoped people would go home thinking on their experience and what they heard from Muslim, Jewish, Indigenous, black and other people Saturday.

"Overall, it was love and it was joy, and I saw people listening," Ohana said.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson addressed the counter-protest, saying he was proud of the people of Vancouver for their show of strength and diversity in response to the planned anti-Islam rally.

"There's lots of problems around the world," Robertson said. "We've got to take care of home base and make sure we're a beacon of that positive love and respect."