The Political Aspirations of Quebec’s Far-Right
Anti-Islam groups are using the Syrian refugee crisis and terror attacks in Europe to gain support in Quebec.
Rainy days were sparse in Drummondville last September, but it poured the day of the anti-Islam protest.
Yet the precipitation—and the lack of traffic, pedestrian or otherwise—did little to deter the 20 or so participants, who paced in front of the local Muslim community centre with their signs and slogans.
"We must remain masters of our own house!" a woman yelled into a loudspeaker angled towards the empty city street. "Quebec is not Muslim!"
Across the road, two brown-skinned children peered out of a second story window. One of the protesters, a tall woman in her forties, saw them and extended an accusatory finger. "Yes, it's you we're talking about," she screamed.
After a few yelling matches with displeased local residents and an eventual police visit, the protest slowly petered out with participants piling their signs in front of the centre's door. They would soon rally again: this was but one of several actions organized by Quebec's growing right-wing movement over the last year.
This particular get-together was led by the province's chapter of PEGIDA, a faction of the far-right German group of the same name. Founded in Dresden in 2014 by a man named Lutz Bachmann, PEGIDA stands for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West" and is often accused of inciting hate. (Earlier this year, a German court actually convicted Bachmann of hate speech for anti-immigrant comments he made on Facebook.)
Yet PEGIDA Québec leader Stéphane Asselin maintains the group is neither xenophobic or racist. Its main ambition, he told VICE, is "to fight against the rise of political Islam and fundamentalism."
According to Asselin, his ultimate goal is now to take this agenda all the way to Quebec's National Assembly.
PEGIDA Québec formed in early 2015 with what seemed like a rocky start. Its coming out, an anti-Muslim protest that attracted only a handful of people, was buried by a massive anti-racism counter-protest in Montreal's Saint Michel neighbourhood.
Then in November of last year, alleged PEGIDA member Jean-François Asgard posted a list of Montreal's mosques on the group's Facebook wall, along with a not-so-cryptic call to action. "Make sure your plan doesn't get you arrested," he wrote in French. "It's with your engagement that we'll succeed in vanquishing them." Media picked up on the threat, prompting the group to condemn the post and disavow Asgard, whom Asselin claims was never even a legitimate PEGIDA member. "I've never met him, I can't even say if he's real or just a troll," he says.
But now, with the Syrian refugee crisis, and the Paris, Brussels, and Nice attacks—which shook the world but struck a particular nerve in French-speaking Quebec—PEGIDA Québec seems to have found its footing.
Asselin explains his organisation is now trying create a united front with other like-minded groups to further their political aspirations. On Facebook, he says he helps runs secret page that allies the leaders of most of the province's far right-wing groups—roughly 50 of them, he claims. "We're aiming to do fewer protests on the ground because we've realized these smaller actions don't lead to much, we really need to get political."
This ambition stems from a belief that existing political parties aren't doing enough to protect Québécois identity. "We were counting on the Parti Québécois," Asselin explains, citing the party's controversial efforts to implement a secular Charter of Values as a positive endeavour. "The CAQ is a federalist party and I don't feel Canadian. And don't even get me started on Québec Suicidaire," he says of left-leaning Quebec Solidaire. As for the provincial Liberals, "that's straight-up Saudi Arabia."
Taking his views to the National Assembly's Blue Lounge would provide parliamentary immunity, an important consideration for Asselin. "If we do these protests and say something that offends someone, we can get sued," he says. "But if we say something at the National Assembly, we're protected from that."
The PEGIDA Québec leader doesn't take responsibility for the hateful comments found on his groups' page, which include calls to violence and rape threats. "I've never threatened anyone, I've never encouraged anyone to burn mosques. If those people identify with PEGIDA, it's not my fault."
When asked about his platform, Asselin says his first move as an elected official would be to shut down mosques and close all Quranic schools. Other religious schools would also be shuttered, he adds.
When the conversation (inevitably) veers to Donald Trump, Asselin says he finds the american President-elect a bit "too radical" but agrees with his views on Islam. "If I was in power I would do the same as him, all Muslims would have to adapt to our culture," he says. "If you don't like it you get a free plane ticket and you go back home, I have no qualms with that."
PEGIDA—whose original German chapter is also considering founding a political party—is not the only group venturing into this arena. Ugo Ménard, a right-wing outlier who heads the province's branch of the Front National has been vocal about his political ambitions. And galvanized by Trump's victory, Charbonneau commission superstar witness Bernard "Rambo" Gauthier recently announced his intention to challenge the "political elite" by running for office with the "Citoyens au pouvoir" (Citizens in Power) party.
Some right-wing group members also told VICE they felt represented by the "Équipe Autonomiste," a group comprised of several former ADQ partisans whose French motto translates to "More to the right but not out in the field" (a Quebecois expression that basically means "not totally lost") and whose platform emphasizes the preservation of Quebec culture and men's rights.
The size and scope of Quebec's so-called "alt-right" is difficult to measure. PEGIDA Quebec, which now has about 15,500 "members" on Facebook is one of the biggest groups in the province (for scale, PEGIDA Canada has about 21,800). It is dwarfed only by La Meute, a secretive closed community that claims to have a membership of more than 40,000 followers. But if you take into account the fact that members are often part of more than one of these groups and that curious observers and journalists have also clicked the "Like" button, the actual figures are nearly impossible to nail down.
Calling these various shades of Islamophobia a "movement" might also be a stretch. The groups claim to have many different ideologies, from those who say they are only against muslim extremism to openly anti-immigration crowds. Conversations with various members revealed tensions between organizations (for instance, many reported quitting La Meute for its "lack of concrete action" and others condemned groups with overly fascist views) as well as occasional disagreements within the groups themselves.
The "alt-right" label is also a sore spot: some of the people VICE spoke to shunned the term, insisting their views were neither racist nor extreme, as the term now connotes.
However, Herman Deparice-Okomba, the director of Montreal's Radicalisation Prevention Centre, says any group that promotes division and fear falls into their definition of radical. "PEGIDA is on our radar, they incite hate, they are against immigration," he says. "These groups are opposing unity, they encourage exclusion. You can't be a group that promotes racial hatred and say you're not condoning violence."
The issue of right-wing radicalisation has been a big part of his centre's work: an estimated ten percent of the calls the team receive have to do with right-wing extremism. (Questions or concerns about single-issue extremism account for another ten percent of inquiries and the remaining 80 percent have to do with politico-religious extremism.)
Still, Deparice-Okomba says recognized party status might not be a bad thing for these groups. "If they create parties, they'll have to abandon the violence, the exclusionary discourse," he says. "Then we can speak with them and try to make them understand."
For now, Asselin says he's focused on meeting people and creating the right political formula. He's also recruited 21-year-old Sébastien Poirier—a recent Parti Autonomiste candidate and former Parti Québécois member—to helm the party.
The team are now brainstorming a new name. "So far we're just called PEGIDA Québec but we'll eventually have to change that," he says, because the party will be a separate entity from the core "activist" group, but also because the resulting acronym is unfortunately already in use by the Parti Québécois.
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