'Freedom and liberty' demonstration outnumbered by 'anti-fascist' demonstrators

Hundreds with bitterly opposing views about freedom and globalization gathered outside city hall, withstanding the cold for a heated confrontation on Saturday. 

The March for Freedom, Liberty and Justice was planned as part of a nationwide protest for the "right to free speech," but a counter-protest far outnumbered the crowd.

The Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens, a national activist group responsible for denouncing Islam and claiming to "protect the integrity of the Canadian Charter of Rights," told CBC News on Thursday that they were worried about things like the encroachment of Shariah law in Canadian society and globalization in general.

The group has been a strong opponent to M-103, a motion tabled by Mississauga—Erin Mills Liberal MP Iqra Khalid back in December. It aims to condemn and combat Islamophobia, acts of discrimination and hate against Muslims in the House of Commons. 

But critics say its reach is too broad.

According to people who came out in support of the original protest are concerned about what they see as the erosion of free speech rights in Canada.

In response to the planned demonstrations, a group called Hamilton Against Fascists, as well as other groups sharing their ideology, organized a counter-demonstration to protest what they see as fascism and Islamophobia inherent in the the other group's agenda. 

More than 100 people showed up, but fewer than 10 voiced their opinions that ran against the tide of anti-fascism protestors.

Georges Hallak, founder of Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens, told CBC News on Thursday that they expected a turnout around 100 supporters in Hamilton, but hedged the real number might be lower because "people are scared" of having their views misconstrued. A Facebook event page for their demonstration says a total of 16 attended the event with 39 people saying they were "interested."

What actually transpired outside of city hall was the largely anti-fascism crowd gathering and speaking, with a few agitators on the fringes speaking out and arguing with those activists who responded. The most common chant among these few M-103 protestors was simply "free speech," which they shouted back at a sea of people who chanted "fascists, go home!"

Fear on all sides

Scott Jacobsen was one man at the rally who came in opposition to M-103.

"I think the encroachment of Shariah law is a credible threat in Canada," he said.

Jacobsen says he feels his right to free speech is under attack. He's a local Christian pastor and theology professor, but declined to reveal where he works. He said that, from his perspective, some things Islam says about Jesus are blasphemous, but current political culture hinders his ability to criticize Islam in response.

He said when he got to city hall with a sign promoting free speech, it was ripped away from him by the counter-protesters wearing masks.

As long as we exist, fascists of any stripe will not be able to meet publicly in this city without being shut down. - Martin Rosso, Hamilton Against Fascism

"I don't know why they're wearing masks. It's kind of creepy," he said. He thinks this incident is a good example of political correctness culture in Canada run amok.

Asked about the decision to wear masks, one of the masked counter-protesters who would only be identified as "J.R." told CBC News that it's partly due to U.S President Donald Trump, who he says "has made extreme, radical right-wing politics into the norm."

J.R. also said the masks are protection against the practice known as "doxxing," which is the posting of someone's personal information online for the purpose of giving their opponents the means to harass and threaten them.

In the last few years, doxxing has gained a reputation as an underhanded tool of ideological warfare whose main battleground is online, but whose effects readily bleed into the physical world.

Martin Rosso, who founded Hamilton Against Fascists about a month ago, stood at the podium before the crowd and said, "As long as we exist, fascists of any stripe will not be able to meet publicly in this city without being shut down."

"And that's a guarantee," he added, to a chorus of cheers.

dave.beatty@cbc.ca | @dbeatty

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