After criticism, Premier Jason Kenney condemns racist elements at Edmonton torch rally

After two days of silence and criticism from other political leaders, Premier Jason Kenney on Monday condemned the racist elements and symbolism of a weekend torch rally on the Alberta legislature.

Officers were swarmed and punched, Edmonton Police Association says

Anti-lockdown protesters surrounded police during scuffles at a rally on the Alberta legislature grounds on Saturday. (Scott Neufeld/CBC News )

After two days of silence and criticism from other political leaders, Premier Jason Kenney on Monday condemned the racist elements and symbolism of a weekend torch rally at the Alberta legislature.

In a written statement sent at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Kenney acknowledged the source of the torch imagery used in posters promoting the event, and the affiliations of some people involved.

"I understand that publicity for this event incorporated an image apparently taken from the notorious 2017 Charlottesville torch rally, which was an explicitly white supremacist event," Kenney said in a statement issued through his press secretary.

"Prominent racists promoted Saturday's protest at the legislature, and individuals attended the event from known hate groups like the 'Soldiers of Odin' and 'Urban Infidels.' I condemn these voices of bigotry in the strongest possible terms."

The event was held to protest public health measures used to curb the spread of COVID-19. Some anti-lockdown protesters carried lit torches, a symbol of white supremacy used by the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and more recently by white supremacists at the deadly 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

While Edmonton police initially characterized the protest as mostly peaceful, with one arrest, Sgt. Michael Elliott of the Edmonton Police Association said four officers were assaulted.

"They were punched while trying to effect an arrest," Elliott said during an interview on CBC's Radio Active. "They were swarmed."

 Video posted online showed protesters insulting and making threats to members of the media. 

In his statement, Kenney said there were likely a "range of perspectives and motivations" among those who attended.

"There is no doubt that some people came just to register their opposition to public health measures, which is their democratic right," he said. "But these people also have a responsibility to disassociate themselves from the extremists who peddle hatred and division, and who played a role in this event."

 A group of counter-protesters showed up at the rally. Dozens of police officers stood between them and the anti-lockdown protesters. 

Kenney had not said anything about Saturday's events until he issued his statement late Monday afternoon. 

Leela Aheer, Alberta's minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women, who is of South Asian descent, appeared to be visibly uncomfortable when she was asked at an unrelated news conference earlier on Monday about the lack of reaction from the government. 

While she condemned racism and white supremacy, Aheer did not address the rally or the lack of response by government. 

Instead she referred reporters to an article she had written "a year and a half ago" where she talked about how she has personally been affected by white supremacy. 

"I find this question to be completely and very disingenuous, considering my own background and considering what I've actually had to put up with in my lifetime when it comes to white supremacy," Aheer said. "So if you didn't hear it, hear it now. It's not acceptable and it never will be."

Premier's silence 'outrageous'

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson condemned the overtly racist symbols used in Saturday's rally.

Notley called Kenney's silence on the issue "outrageous." 

"Tiki torch or torch rallies are absolutely historically associated, and everybody knows it, with some of the most heinous examples of racism against racialized citizens across the world," she said earlier on Monday. 

"It's unacceptable that we had that in Edmonton. And it's certainly unacceptable that our premier has not stood up to speak out against it."

Iveson said the rally was "appalling and disappointing," adding that he was concerned about the rhetoric in the days leading up to the event. 

He said the event was troubling particularly to Black, Indigenous, transgender and people of colour. 

"Many people feel real fear right now at the tone that we hear in public discourse and in these alt-right groups who manifest extremely violent and hateful speech," he said. 

"It's a huge concern for me and its a huge concern for many leaders in our community, especially in our diverse communities."

Condemnations of racism by political leaders make a difference for BIPOC communities, said Irfan Chaudhry, hate crimes researcher and director of the Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity at McEwan University in Edmonton. 

"It creates a strong level of acknowledgement that those in positions of power, where these communities have typically been excluded from, that it's being taken seriously, that it's being taken with a level of credibility and legitimacy," he said.

Edmonton police faced criticism on Sunday for tweets that said most protesters "exercised their freedom of expression peacefully and respectfully."

Protesters violated public health directives that limit outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people. Those on the anti-lockdown side also were unmasked.

Though people weren't ticketed at the event, Iveson said there is a possibility that could happen as some of the participants are known to authorities.

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian, Thandiwe Konguavi and Jordan Omstead