Far-right groups, counter-protesters rally over asylum seekers at Canada-U.S. border

Duelling protests were held on Saturday at a major Quebec-New York border crossing near an unofficial port of entry where many asylum seekers make their way into Canada.

Competing protests held near site of Roxham Road, where asylum seekers have been crossing

Members of Storm Alliance, a self-described 'ultranationalist' group, gathered at the Canada-U.S. border on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Mike Noble is a construction worker from Ottawa who believes that ISIS fighters are entering into Canada at Roxham Road, the country's busiest illegal border crossing. So on Saturday, he made the 2½ hour drive from his home to the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Lacolle, Que.

There Noble, 35, joined around 100 other people, many of them affiliated with one of Quebec's growing number of far-right groups, to protest how governments are handling the flow of asylum seekers entering Canada outside official ports of entry.

"I'm against illegal immigration, I'm against the Trudeau government," Noble said.

"My grandpa fought for this country during World War 2. My great grandfather fought for this country during World War 1. And I just can't let criminals, ISIS members, come here and try to destroy my people."

Mike Noble, a 35-year-old construction worker from Ottawa, said he worries ISIS fighters are coming into Canada at Roxham Road. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

There have been no public reports of ISIS members crossing at Roxham Road and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says that all entrants undergo security and criminal checks.

But far-right groups in Quebec have used the illegal crossing as a rallying issue in an attempt to grow their membership.

So far this year, more than 7,600 asylum seekers have crossed into Canada at unofficial ports of entry, the vast majority of them at Roxham Road, which is a short drive from Lacolle.

Officials expect that number to jump in the coming months — outstripping the nearly 20,000 who crossed last year in Quebec — and are putting resources in place to accommodate the influx.

The RCMP recently erected a semi-permanent structure at Roxham Road, where they process and screen asylum seekers. The Quebec government is also pressuring Ottawa to send more of the claimants elsewhere after they are processed.

One man at the demonstration, an electrician wearing a colander on his head, said he was worried that Canada was sending the wrong message by failing to block asylum seekers from crossing at Roxham Road. 

His colander head-piece, he said, symbolized how he sees the border: "Everything goes through."

"I have no problem with legal immigration. But I'm against illegal immigration. They're letting just anybody into the country," said Marc Breton, who started an anti-immigration group three months ago. He said it has 140 members.

Members of Storm Alliance held up signs near the border on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

'A message of welcome'

It was the third demonstration by far-right groups on or near Roxham Road since January 2017, when illegal crossings began to spike in Quebec.

As they have in the past, a coalition of anti-racism activists, open-border advocates and left-wing groups organized a counter-demonstration at the border on Saturday. 

Activist Jaggi Singh, centre, clashes with provincial police during a protest in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The road where the two sides gathered was bordered on one side by Highway 15, and on the other by mobile trailers destined to temporarily house asylum seekers. Riot police occupied the middle ground between the two protests.

"We're here to send a message of welcome to the people who are in these trailers, who are forced to cross in an irregular manner at Roxham Road," said Aaron Lakoff, a community organizer from Montreal, who was among the counter-demonstrators.   

The duelling rallies prompted authorities to close the Lacolle border crossing for more than two hours on Saturday afternoon.

A quieter event took place earlier in the day on a small farm on Roxham Road, a few dozen metres from the border line.

About 20 people — many of them local residents — gathered to show their support for asylum seekers.

Children tossed a football while someone played John Lennon's Imagine on repeat from a small speaker.

Pro-immigration demonstrators blocked the highway next to the border on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"Most of us are just regular people who can sympathize with folks coming from a different part of the world with young families that are just trying to make ends meet," said Jeff Turner, an environmental engineer who recently moved to Quebec from British Columbia.

Turner is a member of the group Bridges Not Borders, which travels to the American side of the border once a week to monitor crossings and offer support to those making the crossing. 

"The folks coming across are in a pretty vulnerable situation. We're just eager to show that there are folks here who appreciate that vulnerability and would like to provide a counter-point to some of the more angry people we've come out."