Hamilton police say more arrests are possible as they scour video evidence in the wake of a protest outside a rally by People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, which saw a number of violent clashes outside the event.
About 100 people had gathered to support or protest against the fundraiser for the party held Sunday evening at Mohawk College, and four people — two each from the opposing sides — were arrested for breach of the peace.
Police on Monday specifically cited a widely distributed video that showed an elderly woman and her companion being blocked from entering the venue and yelled at by protesters.
The image of the woman and video of the incident has been broadly shared across social media, particularly with PPC supporters decrying “Antifa” — anti-fascist protesters — for their actions. “Couldn’t go any lower,” said one retweet, “What a disgrace,” said another.
Police have now said they are aware of the incident and that while officers did not witness the initial confrontation, they said once officers saw what was happening, some intervened and escorted the woman and her companion into the building.
Alice Smith, one of the organizers of the event, told CBC Hamilton that the actions by those in the video toward the elderly couple do not reflect the views held by the majority of protesters.
“I have never seen [the people blocking the woman] before last night,” she said. “If I had been there at that spot, at that moment … I would have stepped in to stop it, because that wasn’t what we were there for.”
She also added that people were there to protest against a “particular ideology” more so than a single person.
Kojo Damptey, program manager at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI), was also at the college for the start of the protest. He stressed that the moment with the elderly couple was a “distraction” from the protest.
“I don’t think that harassing … old folks and people that have disabilities is a good thing,” he said. “[But] to talk about that one incident is a distraction from why we were even there.”
“If they (PPC) weren’t allowed to speak at Mohawk, that wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I think people should be focused on the reason why residents need to come out.”
Coun. John-Paul Danko (Ward 8) was also present as a protester. He said the atmosphere was “volatile” and that other groups’ presence, like the Love in the Hammer choir, helped “bring it back to being a protest and not a confrontation.”
History of far-right protests
Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University, said the photo and video of the moment was one of vulnerability and could be used to frame the situation.
“That’s a powerful image if you want to tell the story of this being some all-powerful antifa preventing the free expression of ideas and being so afraid of ideas that they wouldn’t even let an elderly woman come and hear them,” he said.
“It frames it as one of free speech and ‘who’s the problem standing in the way? These people that came to protest it.'”
He also said the clashes reflect a reality in Hamilton, where different people are competing for space for their voices.
“It’s an ongoing situation where far-right, white nationalist — some might call them Nazi groups — are trying to make space in the city,” he said. “Other organizations are saying ‘no. This isn’t part of civic discourse; these aren’t people who are really interested in liberal rights and free speech … they need to be pushed out of the city.'”
He cited protests against the Soldiers of Odin Hamilton chapter and the Proud Boys “Patriot Walk” down Locke Street, incidents at the city’s Pride festival, and ongoing issues at city hall with yellow vest protesters.
“[The far right] has come to Hamilton in a way it hasn’t come to other places,” he said.
And while Graefe said that the PPC itself is not a hate organization, he explained that its existence is a change in Canada’s political ecology. And in Hamilton in particular, he said there is a “long-term discussion” about “the acceptability or non-acceptability of far-right organizations.”
The party said 600 people paid $50 to attend the event, which was scheduled before the election began.
Bernier appeared onstage with Dave Rubin an American YouTuber and political commentator.
When CBC Windsor on Monday asked Bernier about the Hamilton protests, he stressed the importance of protesting “peacefully.”
‘Shame’ to not have free speech, Bernier says
“It’s a shame that in this country you cannot have a politician speak freely and you have a protest,” he said.
“I’m not against people who will protest peacefully — that’s the most important — but protesting with a mask and, you know, trying to stop people from entering into the building —that’s not the Canadian way.”
When asked about whether he had anything to say to his supporters who were arrested, Bernier responded that “all the people were inside the building,” that they “share the party’s values” and are “very peaceful people.”
Mohawk College spokesperson Bill Steinburg stood by the school’s previous comment to CBC Hamilton that the party is a part of the federal dialogue. He added that this event had been booked before the writ dropped.
“We recognize that people have the opportunity to protest, to voice their concerns, but no one has a free hand to break the law,” he said.
When asked what Mohawk College has to say to people expressing that the PPC event shouldn’t have happened, Steinburg said that “we regularly have members of varying political parties visiting us on campus. We didn’t afford the PPC any more accommodation than we would any other political party.”