A thousand people participated in the events of Solidarity Weekend on September 30, when a planned white supremacist rally was transformed, via the alchemy of the popular imagination, into a powerful expression of community solidarity.
That’s the big story. A hundred smaller dramas played out that day, some under the fetishistic gaze of the news media compulsively desperate for salacious copy, some fleetingly in front of an appreciative crowd, and others marginally, outside of most people’s awareness. Some are still to play out.
It was a complicated event but, however multi-layered, was many times more hopeful than bleak.
Like other similar stories, it tells of a double city, a place that’s capable of serving as home base to a cynical white supremacist sect that masks its hate in casual xenophobia but also capable of producing an almost spontaneous popular refusal of that ruse by people deeply invested in building and defending a caring and welcoming community.
It was remarkable event in terms of its intensity but not in terms of its themes, which are familiar and commonplace for those most affected by them. Tensions that play out every day on Peterborough’s streets and stores, in job interviews and in courtrooms, between racism and anti-racism, often invisible to the white majority, generated sparks that could be seen across the country.
Charmaine Magumbe told Global News a few days before the rally that the event would be an opportunity for those who “want to show that Peterborough is not a city of hate, but a city of acceptance, to stand up to hate.” The group intentionally organized something they felt would enjoy broad support, starting with a Statement of Unity that Kemi Akapo felt “any rational person would read and agree with and want to sign.” Still, the size of the rally was surprising even to the organizers.
“I’m pretty sceptical,” Akapo says. “I thought, ‘nobody’s going to come.’” People hold rallies in Confederation Park every week or so on various issues, and usually only a handful people, the same committed few, show up. Rather than the same old crowd, this one had people of all ages and backgrounds, people visiting from out of town, and people from Peterborough who had never been to a rally before. “There were a lot of people I didn’t know,” Akapo says. “Kids, grandparents, even my old landlord. There was a sense of community.”
Now organizers are wondering what comes next. How can the community prepare itself for the next white supremacist push, and prepare the ground for a good response? How to turn the energy of a rally against explicit white supremacy—a relatively easy win—to the question of systemic white supremacy, from which many people who are vocal critics of hate groups benefit every day.
The event was freighted with symbolism and clear danger. Not only was September 30 Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holy days, a day of atonement for the past, it was also Orange Shirt Day, a day of remembrance for the legacy of the Residential Schools, the assimilationist education system imposed on Indigenous children in Canada.
It also appeared as the culmination of series of increasingly aggressive displays of white nationalist groups. While the election of President Donald Trump on an openly xenophobic campaign that targeted Muslims and Mexicans has undoubtedly emboldened hate groups in Canada, there is a longer arc to the current moment than the overflow of nativist bile from the United States.
Statistics Canada released figures in July of this year, for example, showing that hate crimes against Muslims jumped by 60% between 2014 and 2015, the year former Prime Minister Stephen Harper campaigned on such racist dog-whistle issues as an opposition to the wearing of the niqab and an explicit appeal to ‘old-stock Canadians.’
Peterborough had a starring role in 2015’s statistical jump in hate crimes.
The city’s only mosque was attacked by arsonists in November, a month after Harper was defeated by Justin Trudeau, and Maryam Monsef, a Muslim woman who immigrated to Canada as a child, became the Member of Parliament.
The Liberals’ high-profile election promise to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees has been used energetically by many on the right to stoke xenophobic anger, even though in many respects, particularly in terms of actual action (versus rhetoric) on Indigenous issues, the parties are not much different. The core of settler ideology, that the land belongs to the state and is for creating private wealth, is shared by both parties and reflected in their actions.
Alongside these xenophobic critiques of the Trudeau government have come increasingly aggressive gestures by far-right groups, most often in response to attempts to come to terms with the historical legacy of colonialism and white supremacy in North America.
While in the United States the key issue has been about overturning the ongoing celebration of the Confederacy, the slave-owning states that lost the Civil War in 1865, in Canada it is primarily about coming to terms with the legacy of the Residential Schools, and the role of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and the father of Confederation, in their establishment. Ottawa’s Langevin Block, which sits opposite Parliament Hill and houses the Prime Minister’s Office, was renamed in June, because of of Hector Langevin’s support for the Residential Schools, a move many saw as a dodging of Macdonald’s more central role and the challenges it poses for the state.
Then there was the incident in July when a ceremony in Halifax honouring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women was interrupted by members of the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, carrying the Red Ensign, the old British Canadian flag that was replaced in the 1960s by the Maple Leaf. The Proud Boys resented what they interpreted as an insult to Lord Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax who launched a genocide on Mi’kmaw people in 1749 and whose statue has been the site of numerous complaints and protests.
In August, a coalition of hate groups converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of Confederate monuments. Many carried tiki torches and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Thousands of white nationalists attended, clashing violently with counter-protesters, resulting in numerous injuries and the death of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester who was hit by a car driven into a crowd by a man with ties to far-right groups.
Similar rallies in Vancouver and in Boston later in August drew thousands of counter-protesters and only a handful of protesters, and were widely hailed as a template for successful resistance to hate groups.
This was the charged atmosphere in which Kevin Goudreau announced on September 7 that there would be an “anti-Trudeau/illegal immigration rally” on September 30.
It’s helpful, though limited, to think of September 30 as the story of two corners, on opposite sides of the intersection of George Street and McDonnel Street: one corner, the southwest, Confederation Park, and the intended site of the white supremacist rally, was the corner of ‘no,’ where people gathered, a few covered head to toe in black clothing or clown outfits but most in their ordinary clothing, to deny the white supremacists access to the park; the other corner, the northeast, the lawn of Emmanuel United Church, the corner of ‘yes,’ where people spoke, sang, read poetry, and prayed as an inclusive, welcoming expression of the community’s shared values.
The thousand people who attended the event moved freely from one corner to the other, so it’s not a question of opposing tactics.
Many people very clearly wanted to say both yes and no, and many people selected where to stand at any given time based on how safe they felt in the face of a threat of racist violence or where they felt they could do the most good, as much as where they ethically and strategically believed the emphasis of the community response should be. There was not only a diversity of tactics on display, but a diversity of investments in those tactics.
On the church lawn, the emphasis was on providing a clear alternative to the hatred that was to be displayed by white supremacists in the park. For May Chazan, the key was to “think about how it could involve lots of different people, anybody in the community that wanted to add their support to the counter-protest.” This was partly a question of finding a message that would resonate widely in the community, but also how to “build relationships between folks who would be affected and making sure they could lead and participate in the response in ways that are meaningful for them.”
This was partly, as Kemi Akapo says, “taking a strong stand against the Nazis,” but also reflected the group’s desire to move beyond simply opposing one extreme group to addressing structural issues underlining the immediate flashpoint by placing Indigenous issues and issues of police violence towards people of colour at the centre, using the direct instance as a hinge to talk about fundamental issues of racism as a historical and everyday experience, rather than as a set of obviously grotesque beliefs.
Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell, an elder from Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island who spoke at the rally, said her grandparents had lived in Spanish, Ontario beside a Residential School. “People would come the various communities to visit their children; they would all come to my grandparents’ house,” she said. “If they needed food, they would be fed; if they needed a place to stay, it was always there. It was just a given. That’s just what had to happen.
“And when you look at the world right now, where we have many, many people coming from all parts of the world, they are needy, they are hungry, they are needing a place of safety, and I think that teaching comes to mind. We should welcome them as well as we can.” For that to be a reality, she said, we have to “take care of each other and love each other and pass those teachings on.”
Desmond Cole, who had travelled up from Toronto to speak, underlined the importance of solidarity in response to immediate threats and danger to the community and to others, and commended the crowd for standing “shoulder to shoulder with one another,” in reaction to the spectre of hate speech and physical violence. But, he said, “We have to stand up against white supremacy, not just white supremacists.”
“There is a whole set of systems in this country,” he explained. “It’s how this country was built. And the reason that I have hope is because I see all of you here, and I see all of them over there [in Confederation Park], and I want to believe that we’re going to go further …, that we’re going to say that it’s time to create a Canada where things like this can’t ever happen again.”
On the opposite side of the intersection, in Confederation Park, where the white supremacist rally was supposed to happen, there were no speakers, only chanting and insistent martial drums. There were lots of people standing around, many with signs, waiting to see if the group tried to rally, and to potentially prevent them from doing so, either by a show of force or, more likely, by simple mass of bodies, as had been done in Vancouver.
At the centre of the park, directly in front of the War Memorial, with its inscription “Their name liveth forevermore,” was Peterborough Against Fascism, or PAF, a few of them wearing all black and covering their faces, some wearing red badges or carrying red flags steeped in symbolism accumulated through the anti-capitalist struggles of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A PAF representative says that they view their actions as “complementary” with those of other activists on September 30. “There may be differences of perspective in how to approach the issue of fascist organizing,” they say, “but PAF has the utmost respect for other organizers organizing against fascism, white supremacy, and colonialism.”
Pointing out that, “in the context of commonplace white supremacism, fascist movements are purposefully hiding their politics within issues that are unfortunately deemed normal within the Canadian political landscape,” the PAF representative rejects the idea that the police and the state will protect people from fascism.
It should be pointed out that, whatever factors went into it, the success of the events on the lawn owed a lot to the presence of people in Confederation Park and around the memorial.
There were stragglers here and there, but no critical mass of white supremacists ever gathered in the park. A few arrived alone and, if they were identified, were greeted with loud drumming and aggressive chanting by the masked PAF ranks.
In the middle of the afternoon, one guy arrived who was determined to stay in the park, and didn’t respond to this basic intimidation. Eventually someone not wearing a mask jumped from the crowd and started fighting with him, at which point the police grabbed the white supremacist, who, as he was being led out of the park, glared at the masked PAF members and shouted, “You’re white,” and “you’re a traitor.”
He was led across George Street to a waiting police car and then, just as the arresting officer opened the door for him, someone smacked him in the head and was immediately tackled by police.
The smacker was placed in another police car, which was immediately surrounded by people shouting, “Let them go!” and “Fighting back is not a crime!” As the crowd grew around the police car, the police opted to release the smacker. Not surprisingly, the smack, not the thousand people who attended the rally or the speakers who spoke, led the coverage in all major media that evening.
“Moving forward, we need to do the hard work,” Magumbe says. “Rallies aren’t the hard work. We know people will support” a rally against white supremacy, but “we need to have the conversation about why there is a white supremacist rally here.” She points out that many people of colour will not move to Peterborough, or if they move here they move away soon after. No rally will change that.
Translating the energy of the rally into on-the-ground action and meaningful change in the day-to-day lives of racialized communities and the white community is the next goal. Hopefully the success of the rally inspires that action and that hard work. “If people left feeling, ‘I did a great thing,’ that’s ok, but we want people to say, ‘What do I do now?’” Akapo says. “Love lives here—but we have work to do.”
Illustrations by B. Mroz.