How Quebec's largest far-right group tries to win friends, influence people
CBC News spends the day with La Meute as it attempts to stage an anti-immigration protest in Quebec City
Headquarters for La Meute, Quebec's largest and now most prominent far-right group, is a tin shed behind the home of co-founder Patrick Beaudry.
It's not quite off-the-grid, but close to it. Though only 60 kilometres north of Quebec City, cellphone reception is spotty here and GPS unreliable.
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On Sunday morning, La Meute's leaders, all dressed in black, gathered at Beaudry's to finalize plans for that afternoon's anti-immigration rally in Quebec City.
Ahead of the protest, Beaudry was nursing a Grolsch beer. It was 10:30 a.m.
With him were Eric Proulx, 51, the group's leader in the Saguenay area (drinking a Five Alive) and Sylvain Brouillette, 52, La Meute's placid spokesman who runs a towing company by day.
The trio sensed that La Meute's future as a citizen's movement hinged on their performance at the demonstration.
An orderly march, the leaders believed, would go a long way dispelling notions the group is composed of racists and violent extremists. They chafe under the "far-right label," and prefer to speak of their ideology as "common sense."
"We hope that it will happen orderly. But we have confidence in our group. If there is violence it won't come from us," Brouillette said before heading into the capital.
Two faces of La Meute
There are, however, no shortage of those who see La Meute as a threat to social harmony and tolerance in Quebec. In the last week alone, they have been derided by everyone from the mayors of Quebec City and Montreal, to Premier Philippe Couillard.
Even the prime minister had harsh words for the group when it appeared they played an instrumental role swaying votes against a proposed Muslim cemetery near Quebec City.
The group's public criticism of illegal immigration and radical Islam often belies the harsher tone that members take on its secret Facebook page, which boasts 43,700 members.
One recent post remarked how there were "no more white people" in Montreal, adding "the population is being replaced by immigrants." It's not uncommon for members to use derogatory terms to refer to Muslims.
In Beaudry's yard Sunday morning, the three La Meute leaders were talking with Alexandre Cormier-Denis, who is something of a far-right impresario though not affiliated with the group.
An unabashed supporter of France's Marine Le Pen, Cormier-Denis ran in a provincial Montreal byelection earlier this year. His campaign posters were roundly denounced as Islamophobic and taken down by Montreal police.
Cormier-Denis also contributes to Nomos-TV, a self-described "patriotic" web channel that discusses identity and immigration issues.
As Beaudry's mangy dog kept rubbing against Cormier-Denis' leg, the group discussed why terms like neo-Nazi and racist — labels used by their critics — were poor descriptors of their outlook.
"It's an attempt to manipulate public opinion," said Beaudry. "You have to ask to what extent it's being orchestrated."
The well-crafted plan for Sunday was to have La Meute members meet at 1 p.m. in an underground parking lot of a government building behind the National Assembly. School buses were rented and carpools organized to bring in members from across the province.
They were to march in silence around the legislature building, protesting what they see as Canada's overly lax immigration policies.
Discipline is important to La Meute's leaders. The group is structured hierarchically, unsurprising given its founders are ex-military. (Beaudry also spent several months as a private contractor in Afghanistan.)
Members of the leadership council have shirts embroidered with five teeth on the collar. Beaudry's has six.
La Meute also organized a security detail for the protest — headed by Beaudry's girlfriend — as well as a medical team. They had walkie-talkies and pre-arranged hand signals that members were told to obey.
But the crowd in the basement parking lot was excited, and the organizers repeatedly had to shout for quiet to get their message across. When the crowd was finally corralled, they were marched towards the exit.
By this time, however, a sufficient number of counter-demonstrators had gathered at the exits and were tussling with police. It was too dangerous to leave, police told them.
So the group was marched back into the echoing bowels of the parking garage. And then the wait began.
At regular intervals for the next four hours, La Meute's security detail conferred with police, only to come back shaking their heads.
Feelings were mixed among the group's leaders. On the one hand, they were frustrated to be hemmed underground by their opponents. On the other, they felt the violent counter-demonstration two storeys above played into their favour.
"You see, we're not the violent ones," said Stephane Roch, a leader from the Montreal area. He repeated the comment several times while we were in the parking lot.
But as they waited, the stale air and oppressive heat began to wear on the energy of the crowd.
A few, looking wan, were escorted out. Several lay prostrate on the cement floor. Water bottles were rationed and passed around.
Around 5 p.m. police let the trapped would-be demonstrators climb the stairs and access the convention centre above. All 200 converged on a small bathroom, and then waited longer.
But their spirits got lighter, convinced they would soon have their chance to protest. Initially instructed not to speak with reporters, La Meute members slowly started opening up.
A 38-year-old woman who works in the Quebec City school system expressed fear about Islamic headscarves in classrooms. "We're losing control of our country," she said.
Simon Gagné, who carpooled from Joliette, Que., said he joined the protest to express his unhappiness at the Quebec government. "We're being left out. And I'm not the only one who feels that way."
Claudia Rochette, a Quebec City resident, said she has been fed up with the province's political parties for a long time, but only decided at the last minute to join Sunday's protest.
Despite being penned underground for hours, she didn't regret her decision. On the contrary, she said, it only convinced her of the merit of La Meute's cause.
"I'm a nationalist, but I'm not a racist, you see. I just think we have to preserve our culture," Rochette said.
Before and after the protest
It was close to 6:30 p.m. when police finally gave La Meute the all-clear to leave the building. The crowd was corralled once again, instructions repeated and orders given for an umpteenth time.
Beaudry, and the rest of La Meute's leadership, are image conscious, and they were savvy enough to know that a PR win was at-hand on Sunday evening. With the counter-demonstrators now dispersed, they had the media's attention to themselves.
When the first members of La Meute to emerge from the building did so unevenly, and in ragtag fashion, Beaudry shouted at them to return.
The scene was repeated, this time with everyone leaving in unison, somewhat improving the photo op.
The media converged around Brouillette, and along with Beaudry, the pair led a silent march around the Tourny Fountain.
Brouillette explained in his monotone voice the group's positions to a bevy of journalists, calmly denying accusations they are racist, Islamophobic or anti-immigrant.
Instead, he said, La Meute simply wants existing immigration laws enforced, Quebec culture protected and radical Islam kept at bay.
Returning to the entrance of the parking garage, Brouillette and Beaudry addressed the crowd one last time in the gathering dusk.
They lauded the discipline of La Meute's members, and predicted the day's events would mark a turning point in how the group is seen by Quebecers.
"There will be a before-the-protest and an after-the-protest," Brouillette said.