Remembering RaHoWa violence: Ottawa's own Charlottesville

When the riots broke out in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, many Canadians were shocked by what they saw. Yet 24 years ago, Ottawa experienced something very similar.

In 1993, white supremacist rock show turned violent

In this Aug. 11, 2017 photo, multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville, Va. (Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

When the riots broke out in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, many Canadians were shocked by what they saw. 

Across the country, people were glued to screens broadcasting the events as they unfolded. Groups of white nationalist demonstrators clashed with counter-protesters in standoffs that turned deadly.

Yet, Ottawa has seen its own version of the events in Charlottesville.

On May 29, 1993, hundreds of people attended a concert by the band RaHoWa — otherwise known as Racial Holy War — in downtown Ottawa.

Egged on by a member of the band, the concertgoers headed to Parliament Hill after the concert, where they began to attack counter-protesters and bystanders. One man assaulted a protester with a metal chain. The lead singer of RaHoWa broke a girl's nose in the chaos.

Many of the white nationalists who carried out the violence, including band members, were criminally charged. 

'This is not new'

Though it seems like it happened far in the past, one expert says a similar incident could happen any time.

"This is not new. We have seen it right here in this country," said Bernie Farber, executive director of the Mosaic Institute. "We ought not to be surprised that neo-Nazi violence and white supremacy take hold from time to time."

Periods of racially motivated violence ebb and flow, Farber told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning this week.

"We are into a major peak in both the United States and Canada."

Racist graffiti was spray-painted on the doors of the Ottawa Muslim Association on Northwestern Avenue in November 2016. (CBC)

Racially-motivated hate crimes in Canada — the most common type of hate crime, according to Statistics Canada —  increased from 611 to 641 between 2014 and 2015. 

Data for more recent years is not yet available, but Dr. Barbara Perry, an expert on far-right groups in Canada, said such incidents continue to become more common.

"We've seen a growth in the movement. They're much bolder, more visible," Perry said.

Canadians don't tolerate racism

Perry's research identified at least 100 different white supremacist groups in Canada, which she said is shocking to most people. 

"The one difference in the Canadian context is we're surprised," she said. "We respond with disbelief."

Many white nationalist groups target Ottawa because of its political significance, said Perry. Ottawa was the target of a mass pamphlet campaign by white supremacist groups just a few years ago. 

In 1988, a Carleton University student was assaulted by three men who self-identified as neo-Nazis. He suffered serious injuries to his chest and head. 

Though it has been many years since the capital region has seen a surge of white supremacist activity, Farber said a resurgence could occur.

Bernie Farber says racially-motivated violence is at a 'major peak' in both the U.S. and Canada. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

He also said Canadians react somewhat differently than our neighbours to the south when it comes to racism. 

"You do see a very, very strong reaction. Canadians do not countenance this racism," Farber said. "Good decent Canadians come together."

Perry agreed. 

"We are willing and happy to stand up to hate when we see it," she said.

An Ottawa anti-racism protest to counter the events in Charlottesville is planned for Tuesday. 


  • A previous version of this story stated the RaHoWa concert happened on Parliament Hill. In fact, the concert happened elsewhere in downtown Ottawa, and concertgoers and counter-protesters headed to Parliament Hill afterward.
    Aug 18, 2017 10:02 AM ET

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning