This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.
With Quebec's left-wing protest movement back in high gear, maybe now isn't the right time to hold an Islamophobic demonstration in Montreal.
But then again, maybe the folks over at PEGIDA Quebec—whose German acronym translates to English as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West—think a provocative march through a neighborhood with a significant Muslim population is just the thing to announce their arrival. What's better than a tension-filled atmosphere and lots of media attention to give it some visibility?
The people behind this obnoxious idea are inspired by the relatively new German-based PEGIDA movement, which started in Dresden late last year and now has offshoots in several other countries. The group denies it's racist, although its founder, a one-time petty criminal called Lutz Bachmann, left the movement after a picture of him dressed up as Adolf Hitler made the rounds in January.
"PEGIDA Québec isn't racist," organizers wrote on the event's Facebook page. "That's why we have to join forces with all defense leagues in order to unite against Islamization."
Saturday afternoon was supposed to mark the group's first public event and those "defense leagues" failed to show up.
Instead, hundreds of people gathered in the parking lot of a mall near a part of town called Little Maghreb, after its significant North African population, in Montreal's Villeray district. A mixture of leftists, students, Palestinians, and Arabs, some anti-racist skins, and plenty others were basically telling PEGIDA Québec to go fuck itself.
According to PEGIDA Quebec's Facebook page, the rally was supposed to start at 4 PM. By a quarter past, with virtually no one from the group to be found, it had been declared canceled. Of the 183 people who had indicated they'd be attending PEGIDA's gathering, fewer than a dozen came out (or dared to identify themselves as pro-PEGIDA). While some were yelled at and chased off the protest site, many were also given pamphlets on Islam and told to educate themselves. "We invite you to talk to Muslims instead of hating us," one anti-PEGIDA protester yelled into a loudspeaker.
The anti-PEGIDA crowd erupted in feel-good cheers after the cancelation, and went off to join one of the city's near-daily anti-austerity marches.
PEGIDA blamed the fiasco of a demonstration on, of all people, Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing party with three members sitting in the National Assembly, claiming that QS put together the "well-financed" counter-demonstration.
Standing quietly on the outskirts of the now-festive anti-racism rally, the group (who didn't seem to have reached a consensus on how to pronounce PEGIDA) told VICE they were disappointed with the turnout. "It's possible that people were scared off because this is the first time our movement gathers in North America," said a younger PEGIDA member who refused to give his name.
Among those who took Saturday afternoon off to attend the counter-demonstration was Sabine Friesinger, whose dad is German and mom is Jewish. She said, "In my family, the situation of racism, anti-Semitism, and fear of the other is something that we've been very aware of and is totally unacceptable. And the danger starts on the discourse level. Because, what will people do after? Where will this racism take them?"
Standing next to her was Chadi Marouf, an ethnic Palestinian born in Jordan. Both were heartened that the counter-demonstration dwarfed the PEGIDA one, but said he wasn't surprised it's happening in Quebec.
"Whenever you have national identity fights, you end up with some sort of discrimination against minorities," he said. "That's only normal."
A little further along, Pauline Beaud was holding up a sign that read, in French, "I am the woman with the headscarf who gets insulted on the metro." She said she turned out to show that Quebecers aren't racists or Islamophobes.
"The PEGIDA movement makes me very worried," she said. "I have family in Germany and I've known about it for a while, and was really disappointed to hear that it was getting support here in Quebec. So I just wanted to show very clearly to everyone who comes to Quebec that they're just a bunch of losers who don't represent all Quebecers."
Disappointed, OK. But was she surprised?
"Unfortunately, no, not completely."
Things got a little weird just a few minutes after the main body of counter-demonstrators left. I didn't see what started it, but a crowd of young-ish people—and then TV cameras and reporters—had formed a semicircle then a full circle around one guy in his late 30s or early 40s who'd started a shouting match with some of the anti-PEGIDA demonstrators.
The exchange was mostly idiotic, with the one guy yelling basically that we're in Quebec so people should act like Quebecers, that Montreal is an Anglo-Saxon city not a French one, they should fuck off—and then he started making monkey sounds at them. The demonstrators then told the guy that he was a disgrace, to shut up, get lost, fuck off, he's an asshole, etc. The cops eventually escorted the guy away, to jeers from the crowd.
The same thing happened with a middle-aged woman a few minutes later, when she and a young Muslim guy started screaming at each other. Again, the cops broke it up after a few minutes.
But this being Quebec, and with anti-government, anti-cop sentiment running near the fever pitch it did during the student protests of 2012, the crowd—several dozen strong—then started taunting the cops. As I looked on, one of the protestors, kind of nattily dressed with neatly combed hair and maybe out of his teens, turned and yelled at me with a sneer if I was a PEGIDA member.
For a few seconds I didn't answer. I didn't even know he was talking to me, but he kept staring. I was taken aback, but assured him that no, in fact, I was not. A national TV reporter I vaguely know was standing next to me and laughed out loud.
The kid turned around and melted into the crowd. The cops eventually left and the crowd of mostly young and excitable student types dispersed.
And that was it. That was PEGIDA Quebec's big debut. Their obnoxious plan to march through a largely Muslim neighborhood and blare out anti-Muslim vitriol outside local mosques fell flat, kiboshed by Quebec's endemic protest culture.
But, racists, fear not: PEGIDA Quebec is promising another protest next weekend, same time, same place.
With files from VICE Quebec Correspondent Brigitte Noël
Follow Patrick Lejtenyi on Twitter.