Did Quebec City police help legitimize province's far right?
Counter-protesters accused officers of double standard after 44 arrests at demonstration on Saturday
On Saturday, for the second time in three months, far-right groups mustered several hundred people together to march through the streets of Quebec City.
Unlike the previous far-right demonstration in the provincial capital, this one did not involve clashes with counter-protesters. No property was damaged. No one was hurt.
In August, La Meute — the far-right group behind the protests — was pinned inside a parking garage for more than four hours by counter-protesters.
This time they marched unimpeded from a park to a convention centre where the Quebec Liberals were holding a party meeting, but only after police officers used tear gas to push back a line of counter-protesters who would have blocked their way.
Late Saturday afternoon, police attributed the peaceful protest to the co-operation they received from La Meute. They also arrested 44 counter-protesters.
"We had a very good collaboration with La Meute. They told us their intentions, their itinerary, where they were headed," André Turcotte, spokesperson for Quebec City police, told reporters.
"The other group [the counter-demonstration] told us they were gathering in front of the National Assembly. But we didn't have the same frequency of discussion with them."
La Meute officials said they had about five meetings with police before Saturday's demonstration. Both Sylvain Brouilette, one of La Meute's leaders, and Jacques Gagné, its head of security, took part in the discussions.
Gagné is a former Quebec City-area police officer, but that wasn't mentioned during the meetings, Brouilette said. In a Facebook exchange on Sunday, Brouilette described the work of Quebec City police on Saturday as "exemplary."
But the level of co-ordination that existed between La Meute and police alarmed the organizers of the counter-demonstration, who believe officers engaged in "political profiling."
They pointed out that police justified some of the arrests on the grounds that counter-protesters were carrying weapons, including a telescopic billy-club.
Members of the Three Per Cent, a self-styled far-right militia with chapters in the U.S. and Canada, were present Saturday and were also spotted carrying billy-clubs, though none were arrested.
"There was a double standard," said Simon Pouliot, a spokesperson for the organizers of the counter-demonstration.
He worried that the police treatment of the counter-protesters (many were anti-racism and anti-capitalist activists), combined with their willingness to work with La Meute, will contribute to the normalization of the far-right.
"It makes them appear like a good group of citizens who respect the law," Pouliot said.
"But behind that, they are a group of citizens who advocate racist and violent ideas, who contribute to the toxic climate in Quebec. It's dangerous to legitimize groups like this."
The normalization of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups has become a major concern in the United States in recent months.
Treating such groups like any other civil-society organization — deserving of free speech and assembly protections as well as objective reporting — elides the pathological character of their beliefs, say anti-racism advocates.
How to avoid normalization?
La Meute, for its part, publicly denounces the use of violence and rejects racism — but they are opposed to multiculturalism and advocate lower immigration levels. They also believe that radical Islam is on the rise in the province and threatens Quebec culture.
Its beliefs are closer to European far-right political parties, such as France's Front National, than to the so-called alt-right in the U.S.
But other more extremist groups joined their protest on Saturday, including the Three Per Cent and Atalante Québec, an openly racist Quebec City group that unfurled a banner reading "Le Quebec aux Québécois," or Quebec for Quebecers.
"We have some parallel beliefs, but they have their convictions and we have ours," Stéphane Roch, another of La Meute's leaders, said of Atalante.
In a large crowd, however, it is impossible for police to distinguish ideologies, placing them in a difficult position.
By creating a protective cordon for one group, police open space for others to latch on. On the other hand, failing to do so increases the risk of violence.
Poulin, and self-described antifa groups, have promised they will attempt to confront far-right supporters whenever they attempt to protest.
Quebec City police said they have no plans to change their approach for future demonstrations.
"Our goal is to prevent all physical confrontations between the groups," Turcotte said.