Promotional posters and pamphlets by alt-right group Generation Identify have appeared on at least five campuses across Canada, prompting yet another university debate on hate speech vs. free speech.
By Tuesday, most of the signs—which consisted of stark black and white missives urging students to "Defend Your Freedoms"—had reportedly been removed by students or staff.
"Our campus is not immune to this hateful speech," said Students' Society of McGill University executive Connor Spencer in an email to VICE. "We must remain vigilant to ensure that these posters—which more often than not are not hung by students—are taken down."
In Ottawa, the Carleton University Graduate Students' Association and Carleton Undergraduate Students' Association put out a joint statement condemning the campaign. "The group sponsoring the posters promotes negative attitudes toward multiculturalism, immigrants, minorities and immigration," they wrote, thanking students who had helped remove the signs.
The campaign is the work of alt-right youth organisation Generation Identity, a self-proclaimed ethno-nationalist group which was launched in France in 2012 and now exists in a handful of countries, mostly in Europe.
Though the Canadian faction of Generation Identity had flown mostly under the radar until this stunt, it's apparently been around for a few years. Members say they are now reaffirming their presence with new leadership and active recruitment efforts on campuses across Canada.
"We believe in ethno states, countries for our people, our right to be proud and preserve our culture and our traditions," the group's national leader told VICE. Giving only his surname, Tyler claimed that the international group's goal is to rally like-minded youth to undo the "harm" caused by immigration-happy baby-boomers.
Though he himself is not a student, Tyler told VICE that more than 100 people—whom he claims are mostly students—helped put up around a thousand posters across five provinces.
"This is only the beginning, and we wanted to use this campaign as an opportunity to show Canadians that we're organized, we're unified, and we stand together."
Generation Identity made international headlines in August when some of its Austrian members bought a ship to go out and stop migrants by blocking rescue ships, an operation they dubbed "Defend Europe." The plan went hilariously awry when their ship broke down in the Mediterranean and the crew had to be saved by—you guessed it—a refugee rescue boat.
Until this stunt, the Canadian faction of the group had shied away from media attention: VICE's initial interview request was turned down, then answered using an unflattering caricature of VICE reporter. We then received an (unofficial) threat of legal action if we continued to ask for comment.
In a follow-up email and subsequent phone call, however, Tyler offered an apology and explained these "childish and immature" messages were a mistake sent by other high-ranking members with access to the group's email account.
"We're a professional organization and not some internet shitposting group," he wrote.
Though he maintained that he is not racist himself, Tyler did not deny that some of the group's members might have racist beliefs, though he distanced himself from skinheads and neo-Nazis. "This isn't a Fourth Reich reenactment LARPing group, that's not what we're trying to do," he said. "There are plenty of groups for people to go to for that and that's not what we're about."
The group's actions and students' swift reaction reignites the free speech vs. censorship campus debate that's become all the more strident in an era of emboldened alt-right rhetoric. In their statement, Carleton representatives even avoided naming Generation Identity, "to avoid bringing attention to hateful messaging."
Right-wing postering efforts on university campuses have become an increasingly common occurrence in the past few years, and Generation Identity's was not the only such campaign this back-to-school season. In Quebec City last week, a student paper also reported that ultra-nationalist group Atalante's posters had been spotted at the University of Laval and in a nearby CEGEP. They were taken down by campus security.
Yet at Montreal's Centre for the Prevention of Violent Radicalization, director Hermann Deparice-Okomba said that though he's in favour of students removing posters that offend them, his team also encourages raising awareness of these groups' existence.
"We don't talk about these 'new' groups, but it's important to discuss them right as they're emerging," he told VICE. "You have to understand them to raise awareness, to protect people."
In Quebec, he compared Generation Identity's anti-Islam beliefs to that of more radical right-wing organisations like Atalante and the Fédération des québécois de souche. So far, Deparice-Okomba says, the danger of these groups is rooted in their anti-Islamic rhetoric.
Tyler told VICE the group has a pro-bono lawyer among their ranks to make sure everything they do is legal. "We're treading very close to line of legality in the sense of hate speech or things like that, where people might be offended by what we're saying."
While he hopes the campaign will help them recruit new members, that's a result student councils are hoping to prevent.
"The culture of Concordia is one of solidarity, collective support and justice and these groups have no place in our communities," Concordia Student Union general coordinator Omar Riaz told VICE. "We stand up with and are ready to provide tangible support and services to all members of our communities who are impacted by racist rhetoric and policies."
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