British Columbia·Analysis

Vancouver is no Charlottesville, says expert: 'Hate' rally 'isn't a Canadian thing'

Hate group experts and activists are applauding the move to let a potentially racist rally to go ahead in Vancouver, despite fears anti-immigrant speakers could spark violence.

‘We are not a neo-Nazi organization. I would never support such a thing’ says rally organizer

Around 4,000 people showed up at Vancouver City Hall to protest against a far-right rally on Saturday afternoon. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Hate group experts and activists are applauding the move to let a potentially racist rally to go ahead in Vancouver, despite fears that anti-immigrant speakers could spark violence.

As U.S. mayors scramble to remove confederate statues — fearing they are a focal point for hate rallies after a protester in Charlottesville was killed — Vancouver officials are wrestling the spectre of a potential homegrown version of the racism-fuelled Virginia rally.

Two anti-immigrant groups — the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam's Canadian Chapter (WCAI Canada) and the Cultural Action Party (CAP) — are planning to demonstrate outside city hall Saturday afternoon.

While both groups say they don't condone violence or advocate racial superiority, some political leaders are concerned.

Vancouver-Kingsway MP Don Davies wants the event stopped fearing it will attract others with neo-Nazi beliefs, like the torch-toting throngs seen in Virginia last weekend.

Fears are high after Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville woman was killed when a car drove into a crowd of Virginia counter-protests in the southern state last Saturday.

Flowers, candles and chalk-written messages surround a photograph of Heather Heyer on the spot where she was killed and 19 others injured when a car slammed into a crowd of people protesting against a white supremacist rally, August 16, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But experts say it's crucial to let it go ahead, as shutting it down won't address deeper reasons behind racist ideas.

"We don't go around stopping rallies, stopping protests before they happen," says Lindsay Lyster, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA).

"Preventing people from talking doesn't prevent people from acting on discriminatory beliefs. We need to be getting at the root causes."

Others say fears of violence, though valid, should not be over estimated.

"I don't think we'd see a repeat of what we saw in Charlottesville in Vancouver," said Helga Hallgrimsdottir, an associate professor at the University of Victoria school of public administration.

"It is important to stand up for Canadian values in this context," said Hallgrimsdottir, who studies hate groups. She doubts Vancouver's rally will look like Virginia's.

Despite a history of racist groups in B.C., she said Canada lacks some of the key ingredients — from chronic unemployment to a history of slavery — that make other countries a "tinder box" for Nazi-style movements.

Meanwhile, organizers of this weekend's event say they don't condone violence, or advocate racial superiority.

Not 'neo-Nazis'

WCAI Canada organizer Joey De Luca says groups like Soldiers of Odin — a far-right anti-immigration street patrol organization — might be at the rally this weekend, but says that is no reason to stop it.

"If we back out, it would just make us look weak and make it look like we're in the wrong and we're not," De Luca told CBC.

"We have people of all races standing with us," he said.

Multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 11. (Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star/Associated Press)

CAP founder Brad Salzberg insists he's not a white supremacist or white nationalist.

"It's not about race. It's about culture. It's about history, heritage, language, community, the maintenance of Canada's traditional communities," Salzberg said.

"We are not a neo-Nazi organization. I would never support such a thing."

Salzberg does plan to speak out against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's policies around multiculturalism and immigration, but says what happened in Virginia last week was "terrible."

He said fears of violence for Saturday are overblown, predicting counter-protesters will far outnumber his group.

Parking bans are in place in preparation for a rally this weekend in Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC)

Counter protesters are aiming to outnumber the anti-immigrant contingent.

"This is what Canada was made for,"  said Annie Ohana, of an ad-hoc group called Stand Up to Racism Metro Vancouver. "This is what we are all about. I think this is the most Canadian thing you could do. And to be fair the most human thing you could do."

Not legal to shut it down

Civil liberties experts say city officials have no legal choice but to let the rally go ahead.

Streets around Vancouver city hall are quiet Aug. 18, the day before anti-immigration protesters are expected to rally. (David Horemans/CBC)

At the same time, Vancouver police will be watching the event.

While free speech and assembly are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is also illegal to spread or incite hatred against any group based on colour, race, religious or sexual orientation in Canada.

Hate rising

Despite anti-hate laws, experts say anti-immigrant, anti-Islam movements worldwide are on the rise, and Canada has pockets of neo-Nazis also.

"These are people that are really angry. They've been left out and they've been left behind," said Hallgrimsdottir of the University of Victoria.

Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, KKK and members of the so-called "alt-right" hurl water bottles during a 'Unite the Right' rally on August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

She said Canadian mainstream society mostly rejects such values, so she doesn't expect to see the torch-toting fury seen at the "Unite the Right" rally that turned deadly in Virginia.

In Vancouver, riots are more likely fuelled by booze or sports — not race, she added.

And if the counter protest is weak, she says the message remains clear.

"Even if nobody shows up at the counter protest, that's also a statement that says … this really isn't a Canadian thing."

Members of the Ku Klux Klan arrive for a rally, calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. @ybrend