Toronto Nationalist Rally shows that intolerance is not un-Canadian
How should we define ourselves against a message we don’t condone?
Canadians tend to be pretty smug about our reputation of having a welcoming and inclusive culture. We buy into the myth that, because a large percentage of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants, we are better at accepting cultures that are not our own. When acts of bigotry and racial violence occur on the other side of the border, we are quick to assume that those kinds of events and attitudes would not happen here.
The Facebook event calling for a Nationalist Rally on the UofT campus shows that we are facing the same issues of bigotry and intolerance here and now, in Canada. The rally was created by an organization that calls itself the Canadian National Party, and the event’s stated purpose is to “discuss the nationalist movement in Canada and the future of our country.” After the violence in Charlottesville, it seems naïve and imprudent to give organizations that describe themselves as “nationalist” and “traditionalist” the benefit of the doubt.
Seeing the Facebook event pop up was alarming, but it should not have been surprising. This past year, UofT has been the site of heated debates on the issue of “free speech,” even bearing witness to physical altercations between protestors during the “Rally for Free Speech” held last October.
In a video on the Canadian Nationalist Party’s Facebook page, party leader Travis Patron states that the party’s main objective is to “reclaim” and “revive” Canadian national identity. Like much of the alt-right, Patron is against what he calls “liberal extremism,” claiming that this mentality has somehow decreased Canadians’ standard of living and has contributed to economic inefficiencies.
The party’s 21-point platform expresses things more explicitly. The CNP views immigration as “a social engineering experiment designed to change Canada’s demographic foundation.” Patron blames immigrants for Canada’s economic woes, and goes further to say that their presence has degraded Canadian culture.
Patron’s belief that Canada’s socio-economic problems could be solved simply by returning Canadian identity to a more glorious past is a simplistic way of thinking, which ignores the fact that national, and especially, foundational narratives tend to be told from a biased perspective that exaggerates accomplishments and underplays violence. In addition, Patron’s main grievances are economic—yet, Canada has experienced a trend of economic growth from 1870 to today. We are better off today compared to our ancestors, and in fact, these advances would not have been possible without the manpower and ingenuity of Canadian immigrants.
In addition to calling for a temporary halt on all immigration, and for the
Photo | Hana Nikčević
amendment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to remove support of multiculturalism, the CNP wants to create a citizen-run militia “specifically for the purposes of self-defence,” and advocates for the “mutiny of current authority by all police enforcement/military personnel.” This combination of exclusionary and militaristic rhetoric would, very understandably, make many students feel unsafe, particularly if they do not fit into Patron’s idea of a Canadian.
In his statement on the Charlottesville attacks, UofT President Meric Gertler affirmed that “the academic community must continue to condemn acts of violence, intimidation, and the fostering of hate.” As an academic institution, UofT does need to tread carefully around the issue of freedom of speech. However, the right to freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to push back against bigoted and unfounded ideas, and giving a platform to hateful ideas just for the sake of discussion dismisses the wellbeing of the students who are the targets of this hatred.
Though UofT denied the Nationalist Rally such a platform on our campus, the university’s overall response was lukewarm and insufficient.
UofT’s initial reaction was to issue a statement that they were not in contact with the CNP, and to contact Facebook to remove the school as the location of the event. When asked whether the university would allow such a protest, director of media relations, Althea Blackburn-Evans was unable to give a definite answer; responding that “[she] can’t speculate on how we might respond to a booking request […] We consider any space bookings on a case-by-case basis.” Later, the university contacted the CNP to tell them that they were not permitted to hold the rally on campus. However, some parts of the campus, such as roads and sidewalks, are public spaces, the use of which does not require the university’s permission.
It is not enough to look at these incidents on a case-by-case basis, and to ignore the trend of the alt-right becoming more emboldened and more vocal. By continuing to take a case-by-case approach, the university only responds to these incidents as and when they occur, potentially endangering students, as they did, when they failed to prevent the altercations of the October 2016 rally. The University of Toronto Graduate Student Union (UTGSU) has started a petition urging the university to “do more than issue a press release,” and rather, to take a more proactive and preventative approach by implementing concrete security measures.
Furthermore, we need to stop acting surprised that intolerance and racism also exist in Canada. These attitudes don’t develop overnight; bigotry has always existed in Canada, but perhaps in the past, it was a more unspoken and implicit bigotry, surfacing through microaggressions more often than through rallies—suppressed but still existing.
Failing to question our assumption of harmonious Canadian multiculturalism is problematic not only because we are not as accepting as we would like to think, but also because the uncritical view of multiculturalism that maintains that “we are all immigrants,” tends to present immigration in a cheerful light, underplaying the fact that the first European immigrants were colonizers.
We cannot remain complacent. However, the actions of a few are not reflective of the attitudes of all Canadians. It is our responsibility to refute voices that espouse hate, and to demonstrate that they really are a minority. The day before the Nationalist Rally Facebook event was deleted, 61 people said that they would be attending. At that time, the counter-protest event “Unity Rally to End White Supremacy in Toronto” had more than 4,200 people signalling their attendance on Facebook, and has since grown to more than 62,000 listed as going.
We do need to re-examine Canadian national identity, but not in the way Patron suggests. Many Canadians are proud to be known for being inclusive, polite, and just downright nice people. Let’s consider Canadian multiculturalism and acceptance as an ideal to live up to, instead of taking it as a given. Canadian multiculturalism doesn’t have to be a myth if we work on reconciliation and meaningful engagement across different groups, and strive to be better instead of resting on our laurels.
Editor’s Note 09/18/2017: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Facebook event for the Toronto Nationalist Rally was published a few days after the violence in Charlottesville occurred. The Facebook event was created before the events in Charlottesville took place. It also incorrectly made reference to the Canadian Nationalist Party’s 25-point platform. The party has a 21-point platform.