A group of hundreds of anti-mask and lockdown protesters marched the streets of Edmonton this weekend, many with a tiki torch proudly clutched in their hand.
The march, dubbed a Freedom Walk by protesters, followed a rally at Edmonton’s legislature where speakers included conspiracy theorists and a man who has been charged with hate crimes against Muslims.
During the march through Edmonton, protesters chanted “no more fake news,” “no more fake science,” and “we are people.” Many of the marchers clutched tiki torches, which many observers linked to the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 of tiki-torch-wielding white nationalists.
While a large portion of the anti-mask and anti-lockdown population may not consider themselves far-right, it’s hard to ignore the influence of the far-right within the community.
The decision for the marchers to hold tiki torches in the bright Albertan daylight was made after the media questioned promotional material for the event that featured images of the Charlottesville marchers.
“They knew what that symbol meant. Any claim they didn’t know ended when they continued to use the imagery even after it became obvious that it originated with the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ torch march and discussed at length in the media,” Kurt Phillips, a board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told VICE World News. “No one can convince me that this wasn’t an attempt to intimidate who they have characterized as their enemies: government and politicians, public health workers, ‘leftists,’ and others.”
Marie Renaud, an NDP MLA for St. Albert, Alberta, spoke out against the rally and has been lambasted with unsettling messages as a result. One Facebook message told her she will “hang for this plandemic,” warned her the mob is hoping to bring “back corporal punishment,” and advised her to “run while (she) still can.” Renaud told VICE World News this sort of messaging is not new, but thinks actions like this weekend have “gotten people emboldened.”
“I think there are about 50 (messages like that) at last count,” Renaud said. “It’s important to call it out, particularly what happened this weekend... There are people carrying tiki torches. That’s not a coincidence that they’re carrying them. They’re very symbolic.”
Organizers of the rally did not respond to several requests for comment.
It’s not just politicians the marchers are aggressive towards; video taken by journalists at the rally shows protesters being upset at the presence of reporters at the rally and acting aggressively towards them. One video by City News reporter Bailey Nitti shows protesters getting in the faces of cameramen and reporters and screaming “fake news” at them. Edmonton police said one of the organizers of the Freedom Walk was arrested for “causing a disturbance.”
After the rally Sgt. Michael Elliott, the head of Edmonton Police Association, tweeted that “four members were assaulted at the event & we have had numerous members isolated either due to contracting/close contact.” Despite this—and the obvious references to an infamous whitesupremacist rally—Edmonton police characterized the tiki-torch rally as “peaceful” and respectful” in a tweet. Edmonton police did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network said that the speakers and organizers at the event were a relative “who’s who of the Albertan far-right.” It included Kevin Johnston, a man best known for being ordered to pay $2.5 million to a Toronto restaurateur after spreading Islamophobic conspiracies about him and being charged with a hate crime for targeting Muslims online; Peter Downing, a co-founder of the Wexit movement; Artur Pawlowski, a Calgary street preacher known for anti-LGBTQ diatribes; and Laura-Lynn Thompson, a conspiracy theorist who ran (and lost) for the People Party of Canada in the 2019 federal election and is currently the leader of the Christian Heritage Party of B.C..
Several anti-mask groups backed out of the event because of the organizers toxicity. Phillips, who followed the organization of the rally closely, said the attendees were a mixed bag, which included “biker wannabes spoiling for a fight,” “Qanon conspiracy believers,” anti-vaxxers, and various religious groups.
“The ties that bind all of these groups is, of course, the anti-lockdown motivation, however underlying that is an anti-government mentality that people like Trump contributed to since the pandemic began. Had he advocated for masks and a lockdown, I’m not sure this movement would be what it is today,” Phillips said.
Over the past few months, at least four Muslim women have been attacked in “hate-motivated” assaults in Edmonton. Renaud was emotional when speaking about seeing people with tiki torches march through the city.
“It’s really sad, actually,” she said. “I thought we had learned something. I thought we had learned how important it was to stand up against these things, to stand up against these symbols.”
Multiple public leaders have publicly denounced the rally. Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, tweeted, “Edmonton unequivocally condemns racism, misogyny, and other forms of hate.” NDP MLA Janis Irwin tweeted, “Torches, on a bright sunny day in Edmonton? Why? This is very much purposeful. And it’s disgusting.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has yet to condemn the march.
“The premier of Alberta needs to stand up and condemn this sort of behaviour. Condemn this white nationalism, condemn this hatred and racism and bigotry, and stand up and say this is wrong,” Renaud said.
A spokesperson for the United Conservative Party did not return a request for comment on the march.
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