Councillors investigating putting a stop to yellow vest protests
A group of protesters has been regularly demonstrating outside city hall
Hamilton councillors are instructing the city manager to investigate what can be done to stop protests by yellow vesters and other far-right groups in the city hall forecourt.
The protests, which have been happening on Saturdays for months, have been met with counter protests from groups like Hamilton Against Fascism. Other far right groups have also been there in recent months, and both sides have been clashing — though no charges have been laid in recent weeks, Hamilton police say.
One of the people who has been spotted at these rallies is Paul Fromm, a known white supremacist.
Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr told CBC News he has been contacted by people who live downtown who say they are uncomfortable even walking near city hall on Saturdays.
"It's shameful," Farr said. "Everyone has the right for free assembly and to preach whatever gospel they want to preach … but there are also laws across this land about hate and perpetuating hate.
"There is no room for hate in this community."
It's not enough to say hate has no place in this community. You need to put something behind it.- Hugh Tye, Hamilton Community Legal Clinic
To that end, councillors will ask city staff to investigate just what is happening out in front of city hall, who is showing up, and what can be done to stop "hate being spewed on public property," Farr said.
The issue will be debated at the general issues committee meeting at city hall on Wednesday.
These protests have appeared across the country in recent months. Yellow vesters protest what the group calls "mass immigration," as well as the federal carbon tax and the United Nations migration pact. The movement started in France, where people first donned the vests to protest a fuel tax increase — though the concept has been co-opted by a decidedly different movement since then.
A message of division
On Tuesday, Mayor Fred Eisenberger told CBC News that he believes the message delivered at these protests is "one of division, and of a racist tone."
But Eisenberger also said the city doesn't "have the luxury of picking and choosing whose perspective we like or don't like."
"If they're non-violent and not tripping into hate speech, they have the right to congregate, as much as I don't like it."
Eisenberger also said Hamilton has a "zero tolerance policy for any violent actions" on city property, but as of right now, police have told him these people have not "tripped over the line" for violence or hate speech.
Many social media posts have reported that violence has, in fact, taken place in recent weeks.
Const. Lorraine Edwards told CBC News no yellow vesters had been charged at any of these protests, though police say they have had a hard time getting anyone to come forward to report violence or injuries.
One anti-yellow vest protester was charged with assault after a city hall demonstration back in January.
The city could eliminate these protests by amending and enforcing its code of conduct, said Hugh Tye, the executive director of the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic.
"A code of conduct could make it very clear that anyone using that space has to adhere to certain values," Tye said. "There are measures the city can take and still allow freedom of space … putting measures in that curtail that activity are very possible."
A legal risk
Tye said there is "always a risk" of a legal challenge or a human rights complaint if the city was to ban these protests, and that is something the city would have to weigh.
"It's not enough to say hate has no place in this community. You need to put something behind it," Tye said.
"[If not], you're not only condoning it, you're emboldening people. They know they can use the space to say certain things."
Things escalated in Hamilton last weekend, when a physical confrontation broke out between groups at the Hamilton Pride festival at Gage Park. Protesters arrived with hateful signs and clashed with counter protesters.
Watch video posted to YouTube from Pride (warning: graphic language)
Several people received minor injuries, and images of the people alleged to have been involved have been widely shared on social media, but as of yet, no charges have been laid.
Police say they believe some of the yellow vest group left a protest at city hall Saturday and went to Gage Park to protest at Pride.
After that incident, Matthew Green, a former Hamilton city councillor and current federal NDP candidate, said he is calling on both the chief of police and the mayor to actually enforce the city's "zero tolerance" policy for aggression and violence in public spaces.
"The fact that we're allowing the zero tolerance policy to be skirted this way only allows for escalating violence," he said. "We are actually harder on hockey moms and dads than we are on these bigots."
"The free speech argument in defence of white nationalism is going to result in serious community injury."