Photos by Mack Lamoureux
Tensions were high at an anti-M-103 rally in downtown Toronto Saturday, where dozens of protesters gathered to fight for their right to criticize Islam—and more than 1,000 people turned out to challenge them.
The event, called the March For Freedom, Liberty & Justice, was held at city hall and was led by Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens; it was one of many similar protests that took place across the country. On Facebook, it was billed as a call to action for "all Canadian Patriots that believe in Freedom, Liberty & Justice" to stand against sharia law and globalization.
M-103 is a motion proposed by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, which calls for the government to quell Islamophobia and track hate crimes. It is not a bill and would therefore not be legally binding, however far right advocates have painted it as an infringement on free speech.
"I'm against anything that will curtail free speech. This motion is a slippery slope that could lead to legislation down the line," said one anti-M-103 protester named Nicholas, who refused to provide his last name, saying he had family connections to the Liberal Party. "They pass these things supposedly to protect the rights of minorities, but if you look here, we are the persecuted minority. Without this police presence, we'd have a mob attacking us."
"Islam is evil," chanted one woman wearing a 'Make Canada Great Again' hat, who has been seen at multiple anti-Islam demonstrations around the city over the past few weeks. A South Asian man wearing an American flag hat stood on a planter alongside her and furiously waved a giant Canadian flag. The group also played the song "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan, a Somali-Canadian musician who fled Somalia as a refugee. All the while, counter protesters shouted: "Wrong side of history," "shame," and "fuck you."
A black man who was leaving the protest stopped to embrace a friend. They stood hugging for a few moments, before stepping apart. The man lifted his glasses and wiped tears from him face. One of his friends, Sue Wilson, who was also in tears, told VICE the event was "overwhelming."
"The fact that they get police protection and we don't," she said, referring to the cops keeping the anti-M-103 group safe.
"It's a duty for all of us to stand against those who are preaching intolerance and creating a culture of fear for Muslims in our community," Darius, a counter-demonstrator holding a baby in a baby carrier, told VICE after the rally. "It's obvious what's been going on… there's been a surge in attacks on mosques, and people feel emboldened to lash out against the Muslim community, and we can't allow these people to continue creating this culture."
The nationwide protests come about a month after a gunman shot and killed six Muslims at Quebec City mosque during evening prayers. Still, and in spite of the fact that hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, most of the anti-M-103 protesters didn't see right-wing extremism as a threat in Canada.
Eric Brazau, who was sentenced to nine months in jail in 2014 for willfully promoted hatred against Muslims and criminally harassing a Muslim man and his family, told VICE he didn't want to talk about the suspect in the shooting, Alexandre Bissonnette.
"Islam is bigger than a Muslim, Islam is bigger than some nice Muslims, Islam is a bigger issue than Alexandre Bissonette," Brazau said.
Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigration vigilante group, joined the anti-M-103 protest in uniform, but refused to give VICE comment. While the rally was mostly peaceful, with a line of police officers separating the two camps, a few fights did break out, and things got particularly heated towards the end when police attempted to escort the Soldiers of Odin out.
While things were wrapping up, police and counter-protesters surrounded a man wearing a Make America Great Again Hat. "Someone take his hat," one person screamed. As pushing and shoving ensued, with police trying to keep the man isolated, a man wearing all black, whose face was covered by a scarf—likely an Antifa member—snatched the hat off the man's head from behind.
A police officer immediately grabbed him by the neck and pushed him against a wall, and other officers ran up to help bring him to the ground.
For a few minutes, counter-demonstrators screamed at the officers to "let him go," in unison, with some accusing the cops of "supporting fascists." The officers walked the man away from the crowd and released him to cheers and applause.
"The police made it very clear who they stand with and protected them the whole time," Darius said. "It's funny that right wingers need their own little safe space. It's too bad that so many cops showed up because if they hadn't shown up, these people would've been chased out very quickly, and they wouldn't have had an opportunity [to spread their message.]"
Darius slammed Rebel Media, which organized a well-attended anti-M-103 rally several weeks ago featuring four Conservative leadership candidates, for putting out "crazy conspiracy theories" about Canada being taken over by Islam and Sharia law.
"It's not factual in any way, but it leads to real violence. It would be funny if it wasn't so dangerous," he said.
After the crowds dispersed, Sureya Ibrahim, a Muslim woman who came out told VICE the mosque shooting had caused her to "wake up."
"I was sleeping. I thought this is home, this is safe. We are not safe anymore and I feel there's a lot of fighting we need to do," said Ibrahim, who was wearing a white hijab. Despite the rise of hatefulness directed at Muslims, she said she refused to stay home.
"I'm not going to be scared. They're going to control me by scaring me? No. I'm defeating this."
With files from Mack Lamoureux and Sarah Hagi