Libraries in Canada hit by wave of hate, threats, as right-wing groups protest all-age drag events
Online campaign backed by groups associated with Freedom Convoy, fuelled by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric
Family-friendly drag events across Canada, many hosted by municipal libraries, have been targeted by a deluge of hateful comments and threats during Pride month, prompting multiple police investigations and renewed concerns about the safety of the LGBTQ community.
More than half a dozen libraries and drag performers, from Saint John to Victoria, reported being inundated online and over the phone by homophobic slurs and, in some cases, threats of violence.
Drag Story Hour events are popular at many libraries in the country, and usually feature a performer in drag reading children's books about inclusion. They are often held in collaboration with local LGBTQ associations and have caused only minor controversy in the past.
But amid a surge in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies in the U.S., and a conservative movement in Canada increasingly influenced by right-wing politics south of the border, the all-ages drag events have turned into flashpoints of anger.
The City of Dorval, a Montreal suburb, received a wave of complaints in early June as soon as it announced its library was hosting a story hour with well-known local performer, Barbada.
"We received hate mail. We received threats. You name it — we received it," said Sébastien Gauthier, a spokesperson for the city.
In the comments, library staff were, among other things, accused of assisting pedophiles and threatened with lawsuits. Their personal information was also circulated online.
"We also received more worrisome threats for the activity per se, people threatening to come by and do this and that during the event," Gauthier said.
Montreal police patrolled the June 11 event, which went forward without incident, and have opened an investigation into the threats.
"I've worked for the city for almost 20 years. I've never seen anything like this," Gauthier said.
An all-ages drag show in Victoria was cancelled mid-June after the café that was scheduled to host received a slew of threatening phone calls.
"Our show has been running for the last three years, with absolutely zero complaints or concern from anyone in the community," said a spokesperson for For the Love of Drag, the group that was slated to perform.
The spokesperson asked CBC News to withhold their name because of ongoing safety concerns.
"It's frightening to be reminded that there are people out there that wish you didn't exist, that wish they could harm you — especially during Pride month," the spokesperson said in an email exchange.
A police investigation did not treat the incident as a hate crime and no charges were laid but a restraining order was issued against one person, the spokesperson said.
Libraries in Pembroke, Ont., Pickering Ont., Orillia, Ont., Whitby, Ont. and Calgary also confirmed receiving a large volume of negative comments for hosting their own Drag Story Hour events this month.
"It shook staff up," said Rhonda Jessup, CEO of the Whitby Public Library, which hosted an event on Saturday. The library received around 50 complaints, she estimated, including a dozen that involved hateful and threatening comments.
"It wasn't so much the volume of the complaints … it was the level of viciousness that came across in the calls and emails," Jessup said.
Ontario Provincial Police said they have an active investigation related to the Pembroke event, but declined to provide further details.
The surge of hate appears to have diverse sources. In Saint John, for instance, past and aspiring candidates with the People's Party of Canada were among those who circulated misleading images on their social media accounts to suggest a story hour event at a local library earlier this month wasn't age appropriate.
One image was from a 2019 burlesque show in the U.S., the other was from an adult drag performance in April.
The posts spurred a long string of hateful comments against the performer, Alex Saunders, whose drag persona is Justin Toodeep.
"We read a couple of books about a prince and knight who fell in love, and then a couple of books on different types of families you might see," Saunders said of the all-ages June event.
WATCH | Drag performer Alex Saunders discusses hateful messages they've received from right-wing groups:
Saunders says they sent more than 40 pages worth of screengrabs of the comments to Saint John police, including one that said it was time to "light the torches," and another that called for Saunders and a fellow performer to be burned alive.
Saunders says they were told that there was insufficient evidence of a direct threat to pursue charges.
"[It has been] very scary and weird and I really have been trying to put on a brave face for my community, but I had a full-blown, crying, didn't-want-to-leave-the-house meltdown," Saunders said.
The public library in Pickering, Ont., said it received a wave of homophobic and transphobic comments, both via phone and online, following an article and video report by True North, a right-wing media outlet founded by Candice Malcolm.
On True North's Facebook page, posts about the event received more than a dozen homophobic comments, many accusing drag performers of pedophilia, a long-running trope in anti-LGTBQ rhetoric.
The libraries in Whitby, Ont., and Scugog, Ont., were the subject of a petition posted on CitizenGO, an international conservative advocacy group. Staff at Whitby said many of the complaints they received came from outside the community.
In several instances, groups and social media accounts affiliated with the Freedom Convoy encouraged supporters to protest the Drag Story Hour events.
Stand4Thee, an anti-vaxx mandate group that supported the blockade in Ottawa, has issued several calls in the past month for members to contact libraries hosting drag events.
In posts on Telegram, a social messaging app, the group says the events "indoctrinate our children" and are "disgusting perverted filth." Their posts were shared on the Convoy to Ottawa 2022 channel, one of the largest groups on the app used by convoy supporters.
Members of Calgary Freedom Central — a Telegram channel with nearly 9,000 subscribers that helped rally support for truck blockades in Ottawa and Coutts, Alta., this winter — used slurs as they tried to mobilize opposition to an event last week at a branch of the Calgary Public Library.
Members suggested a physical confrontation to show performers they were "not welcome" in Calgary. Another user suggested confronting parents who brought their children to the event.
As in many of the other online forums, the comments in Calgary Freedom Central often invoked the term "groomer" to describe the drag performers or the library staff hosting the events.
The slur, which is derived from the baseless stereotype that LGBTQ people are involved in pedophilia, is increasingly popular among right-wing groups in the U.S., where several drag story hour events have been disrupted by protests this month.
When Calgary's LGTBQ community learned of the negative online chatter, about 25 members of the community and their supporters turned up at last week's story hour event to prevent disruptions.
"I want to make sure the children and performers are the most protected they can be," said Farrah Nuff, a drag performer who attended the event at the Nicholls Family Library.
Despite being subjected to threats, officials at municipal libraries hosting such events insist on their importance and maintain they won't be intimidated.
Bessie Sullivan, CEO of the Orillia Public Library, said she never contemplated cancelling the event, even though callers were, among other things, threatening to get her fired.
"They pissed me off," Sullivan said. "So actually, what we did, as this ratcheted up, I added a second story time."
Library staff in Pembroke say they fielded a slew of threatening calls and emails, some promising that dozens of protesters would disrupt their drag story hour event.
Karthi Rajamani, the library's CEO, was sufficiently concerned that she contacted police and gave her staff additional safety training. But, like Sullivan, she never considered cancelling the event.
"Libraries are community leaders. We should be examples of inclusion and diversity," Rajamani said.
In the end no one showed up to protest in Pembroke. The event was well attended and, Rajamani said, residents applauded the library for going ahead with it. Several other librarians expressed similar sentiments.
With files from Dan McGarvey, Raechel Huizinga and Ali Pitargue