It's no exaggeration to say the library is considered one of the most wholesome fixtures of any community. It's a childcare option for parents. It's a hub for low income folks, the homeless, and often for people of colour. It's public.
All of this makes it deeply unsettling that a group of white supremacists was able to congregate there Wednesday.
The meeting, held at the Richview branch of the Toronto Public Library, was a memorial for Barbara Kulaszka, an Ontario criminal lawyer who during her lifetime represented prominent white supremacists. One, a German named Ernst Zundel, spent decades in Canada and published books like The Hitler We Loved And Why and Did Six Million Really Die? Another, Marc Lemire, is former leader of the neo-Nazi group Heritage Front; he raised a constitutional challenge against Canada's internet hate speech laws.
Lemire and Paul Fromm, another white supremacist and director of the Canadian Association for Free Expression, were both speakers at Kulaszka's memorial. (The CAFE claims it stands for "free speech, immigration reform, and restoring political sanity.")
Naturally, people were upset that a group of white supremacists were granted space at a public venue. In an email to the library, Auschwitz survivor Nathan Leipciger, whose entire family was killed by the Nazis, wrote "it is unimaginable that the Toronto Public Library should provide a platform for hatred and bigotry in our wonderful multicultural city." Mayor John Tory and city councillors also called for the event to be cancelled.
On CBC's Metro Morning, city librarian Vickery Bowles said the library has an obligation to protect everyone's free speech rights, including people whose views are offensive.
"To deny access to library spaces on the basis of the views and opinions of individuals or groups… it not only contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and principles of intellectual freedom but it's also the cornerstone of the library's mission and values," Bowles said, noting the library heard as much when it obtained legal advice.
She stressed that the group abided by an agreement that stipulated it could not use any hate speech while at the library.
After listening to Bowles' interview, I admit I empathized with the library. I certainly wouldn't want to be making a call that pitted free speech rights against the righteous outrage of people who don't and shouldn't have to be exposed to Nazis. But the point is the library caved, and even if the agenda for the night wasn't deporting immigrants, these vile human beings just pushed their way into one of the safest spaces in the city. It feels like a violation, even if legally, the library's argument holds up.
That violation was exacerbated when one of the men, who said his name was Max French, was scrummed by reporters outside the library and streamed live on CP24 for several minutes. During the scrum, VICE News reporter Rachel Browne asked French if he and the others had been discussing Holocaust denial inside.
"There was no Holocaust denial going on in there, and if it was, what of it?" French replied. Asked if he does deny the Holocaust, French said, "Which Holocaust are you talking about?… World War II. Not the Armenian one, not the Ukrainian one. Which one? The one we all know about, right. The one we all better know about if we know what's good for us."
Does it really make sense for a TV station to let this man express his skepticism of the Holocaust live and unchallenged, effectively normalizing his views? Why not instead have a reporter do a hit afterwards, ensuring much needed context could be provided. It's worth noting French was dressed like a member of a barber shop quartet, complete with a striped green shirt, suit vest, and fedora. In other words, he looked like a "respectable" upper middle class white guy, one that probably didn't scare viewers at home. Would the same airtime have been afforded to someone in a Klan uniform?
All of this comes a week after CBC was criticized and then apologized for its interview with The Rebel commenter Gavin McInnes (McInnes was a co-founder of VICE. VICE severed ties with him in 2008.)
For all the Twitter outrage, no one really showed up to protest. According to Browne, other than a couple of masked men who wouldn't say why they were there, no other activists were present. She said library staff were prepared for a much bigger disruption.
It's easy to brush off white supremacists as a fringe group, but their ideology isn't restricted to the internet. This year started with the mass murder of six Muslim men in Quebec—a crime most of us seem to have already forgotten. Anti-Islamic groups like Soldiers of Odin and the Three-Percenters are growing in numbers and determination. Hate crimes against Muslims are up across the country. And now we have neo-Nazis throwing shindigs in the public library.
All signs indicate that the racist, xenophobic lot are experiencing a resurgence. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like members of the public, media outlets, and public institutions have quite figured out how to deal with that. Until we do, we can expect this insidious creep to continue.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.