Far right groups in Quebec joined forces Saturday under the banner of their opposition to a proposed parliamentary motion condemning Islamophobia, taking part in a series of demonstrations across the province.
The largest crowds were in Montreal where some 150 protestors were confronted by a counter-protest around twice that size organized by a so-called anti-fascist alliance.
Several scuffles broke out as police struggled at times to keep the two groups separate.
A brief fist fight erupted when the opposing sides met in front of Montreal's city hall, leaving one person bloodied. Opponents of the far right groups tossed blocks of ice as the protest wrapped up.
But for the most part the two sides were content to hurl insults at each other. From the anti-fascists — a coalition which includes many far left groups — came chants of "Immigrants in, racists out."
From the far right came cries of "liberty." A mimicked wolf howl could also be heard from members of La Meute (Wolf Pack in French), who accounted for the largest contingent among the far right groups.
La Meute's first time in public
La Meute is principally a Facebook group whose professed aim is countering the rise of radical Islam in Quebec.
In recent months, though, the groups has attempted to translate its online popularity — it has close to 43,000 members on Facebook — into an on-the-ground presence.
Saturday marked the first time the group has protested publicly. The impetus, said one of the group's leaders, was M-103, a non-binding motion before the House of Commons that condemns Islamophobia and calls on the government to quell rising hate and fear.
"It was important for us to take part today because M-103 is a motion that goes against freedom of speech," said Stéphane Roch, a member of La Meute's leadership council.
But Roch said many members of the group are also concerned about sharia law, which they believe is being practised secretly in the Montreal area.
Asked for evidence to support that claim, Roch said the group receives information from its network of contacts.
"We have people in all milieu," he said. "We have contacts in the police, in the legal profession, even in politics."
La Meute was joined at the Montreal protest by PEGIDA Quebec, an off-shoot of a German anti-immigrant movement, as well as people affiliated with the little-known Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens.
PEGIDA has attempted to organize protests of its own in the past, but they are often scuttled by large counter-demonstrations.
"We are numerous today. I think the groups are united this time," said Sébastien Poirier, a spokesperson for PEGIDA Quebec. "M-103 has made us more united."
Smaller protests outside Montreal
A smaller protest against M-103 was held in Quebec City, about 150 people turned out at city hall to oppose the motion. They too were confronted by counter-protesters, close to 100-strong.
Around 40 demonstrators attended the M-103 demonstration in Sherbrooke. An anti-M-103 demonstration in Toronto brought out hundreds of protesters and counter-protesters.
In Calgary a few dozen protesters and counter-protesters turned out for demonstrations that were just meters away from one another.
"There is always a large group of progressive people who are pro-immigrant, who are feminists, who are against racism," said Jaggi Singh, an activist with Solidarity Across Borders and one of the organizers of the counter-demonstration in Montreal.
"What we're seeing [on the far right] is a toxic environment where they are creating false fears ... This toxic environment is what we need to fight through."
A debate on M-103, which was tabled by Mississauga—Erin Mills Liberal MP Iqra Khalid in 2016, was held last month in the House of Commons. It will be debated again in April.
Outside of Quebec's far right groups, the motion has met with opposition from much of the federal Conservative caucus as well as Tory leadership hopefuls Kellie Leitch, Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander, Brad Trost and Maxime Bernier.