At least two known hate groups made their way into a gathering of yellow vest protesters in Hamilton, Ont., on Saturday, underscoring what some describe as a disturbing trend that places the industrial city on the "front line" of extremist activity in Canada.
The events at the rally are the latest example of far-right groups co-opting the yellow vest movement.
The demonstration of about 50 to 60 people in downtown Hamilton on Saturday was organized by Hamilton Yellow Vests, one of many smaller groups that have formed as part of the broader yellow vest movement. Standing alongside the yellow vest protesters were individuals wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts bearing the names of far-right groups like the Canadian Nationalist Party, Soldiers of Odin and Wolves of Odin.
A similar event took place in Hamilton on June 1 and reportedly resulted in threats and physical force used against counter-protesters.
"Hamilton is becoming the front line of Ontario hate group activity," tweeted the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, an organization that monitors hate group activity in Canada.
National Observer reached out to two individuals associated with the yellow vest movement in Canada to ask about whether they were aware of any extremist elements at their rally. One of the individuals had uploaded video from the most recent demonstration in Hamilton. There was no immediate response from either to National Observer's questions.
A gathering of yellow vest protesters in Hamilton, Ontario brought together members of multiple far-right groups, including at least two known hate groups, in what is a growing trend of far-right extremists co-opting the movement.
The yellow vest movement, which began in France with protests over economic policy, taxation and rising fuel prices, has in Canada become a vehicle for xenophobic ideology and, all too often, bigotry and hate speech, according to researchers who study the far right. A recent convoy of protesters who travelled from Western Canada to Ottawa in favour of pipelines also included participants who made anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and also racist comments, along their journey.
Islamophobic rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiment plague social media pages associated with the movement, and events frequently include white nationalists and known hate groups.
That's not a coincidence, says Samantha Kutner, a U.S.-based research consultant for the anti-extremism organization Light Upon Light.
"I view the Yellow Vest appeal in Canada as more strategic than ideological," Kutner told National Observer. "It is more of a strategy to launder hateful ideology under what began as legitimate populist grievances."
The yellow vest movement in France started as "a symbol for a populist movement against the elite in regard to oil and gas tax hikes," Kutner said. But in Canada, she said, it "has been removed from its original context [and] is fuelled by entirely different content."
The movement, she said, has been "co-opted" by far-right groups like the Proud Boys, who use rallies like the ones in Hamilton as recruitment events and opportunities "to organize, magnify their influence, and intimidate marginalized Canadian communities." This is one mechanism through which extremism creeps into the mainstream, Kutner explained.
The Proud Boys Canada, a far-right group founded by Rebel Media correspondent Gavin McInnes, was among the groups protesting alongside yellow vest demonstrators in Hamilton, as was the Canadian Nationalist Party, according to Yellow Vests Canada Exposed, a Twitter account run by three anonymous administrators who monitor incidents of hate and violence posted to social media by yellow vest protesters.
Also in attendance at Saturday's event were members of the Soldiers of Odin and Northern Guard, both of which are identified as anti-Muslim hate groups by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. Soldiers of Odin and Northern Guard also have direct ties to neo-Nazism, according to the anti-hate organization Anti-Racist Canada, which also documented the presence of hate groups at the Hamilton demonstrations.
Numerous social media posts appear to show members of the Hamilton Yellow Vests calling for groups like the Soldiers of Odin to provide "protection" and "security" for yellow vest protesters.
In one video uploaded to social media, a yellow vest protester seemingly admits that a member of the Soldiers of Odin "headbutted" a counter-protester. Other videos show attendees "joking" about throwing people in front of a bus at Saturday's event.
At least one person, wearing a protective vest and helmet, was removed from Saturday's event by police.
At least one guy was removed by cops. He wore a protective vest and a helmet, clearly looking for a fight. He was held back by another guy in a protective vest, whose sweatshirt says Wolves of Odin on the arm. pic.twitter.com/dWaeyBMZBd— Yellow Vests Canada Exposed 🏴 (@VestsCanada) June 8, 2019
Over the past six months, the yellow vest movement has had a growing presence in Canada. As in France, protesters in Canada have coalesced around economic issues like the federal carbon tax, but anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment are increasingly parts of the movement's ideology, both online and on the ground.
Experts like Kutner are concerned. She urged politicians and citizens to recognize the extremist ideology lurking within the yellow vest movement and take seriously the threat of escalating violence at demonstrations like the ones in Hamilton.
"Despite the way far right rallies and protests are framed," she said, "each rally is, at its core, a show of force."
Based on the social media activity of Hamilton Yellow Vests, anti-hate groups are warning residents to be prepared for potential escalation in Hamilton, where far-right activists believe they have found a pocket of support for their cause.
"While Yellow Vests Canada street activity is disappearing across Canada, they are active in Hamilton and calling in militant hate groups to attack counter-demonstrators," the Canadian Anti-Hate Network wrote on Twitter Monday.
"Their supporters are encouraging them to follow counter-demonstrators home," the group warned. "They will be back next Saturday."