On April 28, my family joined a small rally in support of Gaza just outside of Quebec’s National Assembly. There were about 10 of us, children excluded. We had a few speeches. We mingled. We left.
As we were walking away, I realized that two police cruisers full of cops were monitoring us — nearly as many officers as the 10 of us at our little rally. What were they there to do? Were we really a threat to anyone?
Contrast this with the marches, the street patrols, the banner drops and the rallies of our city’s far right, and a deeply unsettling image takes shape: in Quebec City, extremist groups like Atalante Québec and Soldiers of Odin distribute food, hold vigils at public parks and monuments and march through the streets, often with no visible police presence. If our rally of 10 for Gaza netted two police cruisers, surely dozens of neo-Nazis marching through our streets would lead to the same amount of attention from police?
The left and the right are not policed equally, writes @NoLore. Groups who want a violent maintenance of the status quo are never policed as much as groups who want a radical departure from it. #cdnpoli #freespeech #G7
But the left and the right are not policed equally. Groups who want a violent maintenance of the status quo are never policed as much as groups who want a radical departure from it, even if their protests are uneventful.
When the far-right marched in Quebec City last November, it was the counter protesters who were arrested and tear gassed after throwing snowballs at the officers. One report from Radio-Canada quoted a spokesperson for the counter demonstration who said that the police clearly protected the far right’s rally: they escorted them and protected their march towards Parliament. I heard the same thing from several friends who were present.
This is Canada's true free speech crisis
Understanding the far-right in relation to the status quo is central to unravelling why the state does not treat these sides as equals (even if journalists, like the folks at Metro, characterized the Nov. 25, 2017 rally as a “clash of two extremes”). In the case of these groups, one side opposes any measure that would make Quebec society more diverse, while the other wants Quebec to be more open to immigrants and refugees, to confront and dismantle systemic racism, and for power structures to be more representative of the people they’re supposed to represent.
The far right does not want Canada to change, and their message, softened, is frighteningly similar to the message of many mainstream political parties. Over-policing is meant to intimidate, confuse, scare and silence those of us who want change, and the more radical the change, the more police will be present.
This is Canada’s crisis of free speech.
Ignore the voices who say that free speech means that they have the right to be listened to, or the right to hold lectures that debate whether or not someone is worthy of love and respect, or the right to trigger the so-called "normies." These voices distract from the crisis we face in the expression of true free speech: speech that challenges, undermines or discards Canada’s status quo.
There are so many examples of how this plays out.
When Dalhouse University student Masuma Khan vented her frustration on Facebook about white fragility, her university sided with a white student’s complaint and started a discipline process against Khan. The case eventually fizzled, but she became the target of thousands of threats that sought to harm and silence her. Khan, born and raised in Canada, was told to leave Canada by hundreds of other Canadians who didn’t think she “fit” into the frame of what a Canadian should look like, or how Canadians should express themselves.
When Serpent River First Nation resident Tamara Malcolm dared to talk publicly about her struggle against Manitoba’s Child and Family Services to have her children reunited with her, she was threatened with losing them for even longer than the 10 years she had already lost. Her story is so common that there’s a movement among Indigenous women to give birth in secret, so Canada cannot seize their newborns at the hospital. Canada’s long history of taking Indigenous children away from their mothers is our status quo, and these mothers are breaking with this in a radical way.
When Hassan Diab was accused of a crime in France, the Canadian government allowed flimsy evidence to keep him in a French jail for three years. Canadian officials didn’t challenge the evidence against him and they did nothing to fight for his release when it was clear that the evidence wouldn’t lead to a conviction. Diab is one of close to a dozen other men who have been deported, tortured and jailed abroad, all facilitated by Canada. These deportations all happened under the banner of fighting terrorism, a deeply flawed notion that has fostered Islamophobia among many Canadians, and which has justified Canada’s military commitments abroad.
When Black Lives Matter-Toronto organized protests to restore Afrofest to a multi-day festival, Toronto police closely monitored the activists. A CBC investigation found that one Toronto detective wrote in an email: "a request for attendees to bring pots, pans, and wooden spoons to use In (sic) a 'mini arts festival in honour of Afrofest' ... could pose security and safety concerns." Black Lives Matter-Toronto spokespersons told CBC they’re not surprised by the surveillance: Pascale Diverlus said at the time, “‘Black activists, particularly, are targeted and surveilled.’”
Indigenous activists are monitored by security forces so closely that one report from the National Post in 2014 wrote that “Canadian Forces spent virtually all of 2013” watching Idle No More activists and activities. A VICE investigation showed that the RCMP surveilled Indigenous activists around the Canada 150 celebrations.
A recent move by Hamilton’s City Council to declare the anarchy symbol “hate speech,” is so ridiculously ahistorical and inaccurate that it demonstrates just how unprepared political representatives are to have free and open political debate.
Handing power over to the state
Back in Quebec City, as the region prepares for the G7 (and Donald Trump’s first official visit to Canada), the Quebec City police are intensely preparing for protests: officers won’t be allowed to take vacation during the G7 weekend and the force has spent more than $150,000 on various chemical products with names like Maximum Smoke, Muzzle Blast and Instantaneous Blast Grenade to use on protesters. This is the same force that, in 2015, shot a young woman in the face at close range with a tear gas canister at an anti-austerity rally.
As reported by Bruce Livesey the National Observer, Canada’s security forces are not surveilling the far-right to the same extent that they’re watching other movements. And the power of these agencies is growing: before 9/11, the total sum of money that was flowed to Canada’s two national security agencies, CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment, was $300 million per year. Today, that amount surpasses $1 billion.
Over-policing groups that challenge the status quo is a massive attack on free speech, and weakens Canada’s democracy. When organizations and individuals push for change, they’re not supposed to be confronted by state pressure to instead force them into silence. When we silence people who are critical of power, we give tremendous power to the state, and their agents; the antithesis of what our free speech protections are supposed to do.