Quebec's Antifa movement on rise in response to growth of far-right groups

CBC spoke to a diverse array of left-leaning activists who call themselves Antifa. They're grappling with tactics to fight racism and neo-Nazism but share a common goal of stamping out far-right extremism in Quebec.

Left-wing activists grapple with tactics to fight racism, neo-Nazism

Cora Le Moyne marches with the Ligue Anti-Raciste Anti-Fasciste de Québec in Quebec City on Aug. 20. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Cora Le Moyne left the Quebec City counter-demonstration against the far right last month feeling energized by what she thought had been a successful protest.

There were close to a thousand people from all walks of life, protesting against xenophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric. They sang, danced and chanted anti-racist slogans.

Then on the road back home to Montreal, a photo popped up on her phone, and her heart sank.

She saw a bloodied, middle-aged man, looking shaken, sitting on the curb — a bump the size of a golf ball on his head.

"I was mad," she said, surmising he was a far-right protester who'd been beaten up by a member of her own anti-fascist movement. "It hurts the cause."

A woman tends to a man injured during clashes between Quebec's far right and counter-protesters. The man had been carrying a Patriote flag, a symbol of Quebec nationalism. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Le Moyne, 42, has been part of the anti-fascist movement in Montreal for decades. She first took to the streets in 1989, at the age of 14, demonstrating against neo-Nazi skinheads.

In those days she called herself an anti-racist punk.

Today, the movement calls itself Antifa — a term first coined almost a century ago in Europe, short for anti-fascist. It aims to make members of groups such as La Meute, the organizer of the Quebec City far-right march, so uncomfortable in the streets that they'll be forced back into the shadows.

Vast array of left-leaning groups 

The growth of La Meute, which began as a Facebook group that now boasts more than 43,000 members, and the emergence of groups even farther right on the spectrum, such as Atalante and Soldiers of Odin, have helped spark a resurgence of radical, anti-fascist activism in the province, according to experts in Quebec militancy and anarchist movements.

New groups and cells have formed, bringing together an array of activists on the left disturbed by the far right's attacks on immigration and cultural diversity, Islam and asylum seekers.

The Antifa groups share values such as having a horizontal structure with no recognized leaders and a common belief in a world without borders. 

They believe in direct actions, but under what circumstances it's legitimate to use force to fight far-right supporters is up for debate, even within the movement.
A man holds up a baby during a rally in support of asylum seekers outside the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 6. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

It's hard to pin down when anti-racist demonstrators in Quebec began to call themselves Antifa, say experts such as Francis Dupuis-Déri, a political science professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal who specializes in anarchism and other social movements. 

When the far-right group PEGIDA organized protests in 2015, counter-demonstrators used the term, as did counter-protesters last March, when they clashed with La Meute supporters in Montreal who were marching against a federal motion condemning Islamophobia. 

Antifa activists were out in force last month at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, where a far-right group had planned to condemn asylum seekers being housed there. The far-right group cancelled, and instead, the migrants were welcomed.

Still a punk — with a difference

Longtime anti-racist activist Cora Le Moyne was in her mid-teens when she first began protesting against neo-Nazi skinheads. (submitted by Cora Le Moyne)

After years on the sidelines, Le Moyne found herself back out on the streets protesting in 2012, when then-premier Pauline Marois and her short-lived Parti Québécois government tabled their Charter of Values, which would have banned public employees from wearing symbols of their religion while on the job.

For Le Moyne, that perceived attack on religious freedom was personal: She converted to Islam in 2001 and now wears a hijab.

"Yes, I'm Muslim, but I'm still punk. The punk in me really hasn't left," she says.

Le Moyne is now part of a group called Action Antifasciste Montréal, which she says relies on non-violent tactics.

For example, when La Meute sponsored a series of talks this summer by André Pitre, a self-styled "socio-political commentator" who opposes Muslim immigration, Le Moyne's group called municipalities where Pitre had been booked to appear, to ask local mayors to take a stand in support of diversity and inclusiveness.

So Le Moyne was troubled by the widely circulated photo that appeared on her phone of the man who'd been beaten up by masked protesters.

Cora Le Moyne is an anti-racist activist who converted to Islam in 2001. (submitted by Cora Le Moyne)
He'd been seen carrying a Patriote flag — a 185-year-old symbol of Quebec nationalism that's been appropriated by some on Quebec's far right to signify their white French roots.

"They could have taken his flag away, but to hit him like that — it was intense," Le Moyne said.

Other evidence of Antifa violence emerged after that protest in Quebec City: photos and videos of masked protesters thrusting smoking garbage bins at police, hurling projectiles and, at one point, throwing water at woman wearing a La Meute tank top.

Violent actions a 'hijacking' of protest?

Maxime Fiset, a former neo-Nazi who now works for the Montreal-based Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, said from what he observed, only a tiny fraction of the Antifa protesters — about 15 people —  "hijacked" the counter-demonstration.

"It made it lose immense credibility," said Fiset.

As a result, La Meute claimed a public relations victory. Politicians, who had initially called the far-right rally racist, ended up condemning Antifa violence.

"As an anti-fascist, I have to admit La Meute did a great job of managing their public relations," said a member of Quebec City's Ligue Anti-fasciste Anti-raciste de Québec. CBC has agreed to grant the man anonymity because of threatening messages he's received in the wake of the Aug. 20 protest.

"They were able to exploit our weaknesses as a fairly disorganized movement, I'd say."

"We need to better define our objectives," echoed another Antifa militant, writing anonymously on a Montreal-based website, in a post that dissected what the author called the "three-way clash in Quebec City" — between far-right sympathizers, anti-fascist counter-protesters and police.

'Facism needs to be eradicated with fists'

That author said Montreal's anti-fascist activists are "much more militant" than their Quebec City counterparts, adding "we need to better communicate our respective intentions in the future."

The Quebec City anti-fascist member said he, too, deplored the beating of the man with the Patriote flag, pointing out that two of the people who came to the man's aid were members of the Ligue anti-fasciste.

A demonstrator displays a banner for the Ligue Anti-Fasciste Anti-Raciste de Québec during the counter-protest against racism in Quebec City Aug. 20. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

He said the man may be a racist, but racism is often based on ignorance, which can be fought through education.

"Racism isn't eradicated with blows to someone's face," he said.

However, he sees fascism as more insidious, more dangerous - and requiring a different response.

"Fascism seeks to eradicate anyone who doesn't agree with it," he told CBC. "You can't do anything but defend yourself."

On that point, both the Montreal and the Quebec City Antifa militants agree that, under some circumstances, physical violence is necessary.

"Fascism needs to be eradicated with fists," the Quebec City activist said.

"We need to do better at choosing the targets of physical aggression," the Montreal activist states, singling out the group Atalante as "a full-on, neo-Nazi outfit."

The debate over the use of force will rage on within the Antifa community, made up as it is by people who often "hold themselves to a high moral standard," says Dupuis-Déri the UQAM political scientist.

"There are a lot of internal critiques … with questions that raise tensions and contradictions," he said.

Antifa and Black Bloc share roots

Dupuis-Déri says Antifa's roots date back to the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, and in Germany — where the anarchist Antifaschistische Aktion first came into being. A half century later, German anarchists began appearing in the streets in masks and dressed in black, to appear intimidating and avoid prosecution.

A 1932 anti-fascist conference in Germany. (Wikimedia)

That tactic — often mistaken for a group itself, said Dupuis-Déri —  is called Black Bloc. Dupuis-Déri said today, in Quebec, it's employed by many activists, including Antifa, often simply to protect their identity.

Le Moyne, the longtime Montreal activist, says she herself has dressed in Black Bloc get-up to avoid harassment, as when she protested against the planned appearance in Montreal by controversial U.S. blogger Roosh V.

Marcos Ancelovici, a UQAM sociologist specializing in social movements, said anarchist protesters worry extreme right members could try to infiltrate a Black Bloc as "agents provocateurs, where they would wear masks, wear hoods to provoke actions and then say it proves anti-fascists are violent."

Ancelovici added there is also a history of police infiltration in anarchist movements, making their adherents wary of outsiders.

Black Bloc tactics were evident at the Antifa counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., last month, during the white supremacist protest that turned deadly. There, too, the debate over the use of force by counter-protesters allowed President Trump to tread softly on the KKK and other hate groups.
Francis Dupuis-Déri, an UQAM expert on anarchism, found this sticker with skid marks across an Antifa flag, referencing the death in Charlottesville, Va., of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, on a utility pole on Beaubien Street in Montreal's Petite-Patrie district. (Submitted by Francis Dupuis-Déri)

Le Moyne said she had Charlottesville and the death of her fellow anti-racist activist Heather Heyer on her mind when she arrived in Quebec City.

She also stopped to pray at the mosque where six men were shot and killed by a lone gunman last January. Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder in connection with that rampage.

"It gave me energy to go to the protest, because I saw the consequences of the extreme right," she said.

Ancelovici says anti-fascist activism tends to ebb and flow in response to the presence of the extreme right, visible on the streets whenever supporters feel there's a threat and fizzling when far-right rhetoric subsides.

That's Le Moyne's experience.

"We came out of the shadows because the racists showed up, so we did, too," Le Moyne said.

"We're going to be around until they aren't."

Cora Le Moyne, 42, began protesting against racism when she was in her teens and has recently taken it up again, aligning herself with anti-fascist groups. (submitted by Cora Le Moyne)