What we learned about the far right over the weekend

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What we learned about the far right over the weekend

A series of demonstrations were held across Canada on Saturday that attracted various far-right groups and their sympathizers, who took to the streets to oppose M-103, a parliamentary motion condemning Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination.

The crowds varied in size, numbering no more than a few dozen in cities like Saskatoon, Sask., and London, Ont., but reached into the hundreds in Montreal and Quebec City.

Unlike in some European countries, where far-right parties are set to play a significant role in elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, far-right groups in Canada largely operate out of the public eye.

Many restrict membership to their Facebook pages, or only meet in private, making it difficult to determine their organizational capacity.

But after Saturday's demonstrations, it became easier to gauge certain aspects of the far-right movement in Canada, and in Quebec in particular.

Here are a few observations.

La Meute was behind the largest protests in the country

The protests were ostensibly organized by a group called the Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens. Soldiers of Odin and PEGIDA — offshoots of European far-right street movements from Finland and Germany respectively — had small contingents at many rallies.

But the group that rallied the largest crowds was La Meute (Wolf Pack in French), an online group that believes radical Islam is on the rise in Quebec. 

Around 150 La Meute members rallied in Montreal, and another 100 in Quebec City. Many carried signs reading "Free Speech."

Local media reports from Chicoutimi suggest 100 La Meute members attended a protest there.

This marked the first time the group has protested publicly, though it has been active online for more than a year. Its founders include several Canadian Forces veterans and a military-like approach guides its structure and activities.

At Saturday's protests, La Meute had designated security guards and medics. Some members providing security at the Montreal protest wore body-cameras.

Before marching to city hall, the group was briefed by a member of its leadership council on what to do if they confront counter-demonstrators.

"You are representatives of La Meute. It's an honour to be part of La Meute," Stéphane Roch told them through a bullhorn. "You have to be disciplined. There will be eyes on you today."

Political hopes?   

La Meute's leaders have told CBC News in the past that they have no aspirations to form a political party. They are interested, rather, in becoming a political lobby group able to pressure all three levels of government.

The same does not hold, though, for PEGIDA, which indicated it wants to register a political party in time for Quebec's next provincial election.

"We've been working on the project for about a year and the political party will probably be ready for the next election in 2018," said Sébastien Poirier, PEGIDA's political delegate in the province.

Though several Conservative leadership hopefuls have expressed their opposition to M-103, none were seen at any of the protests on Saturday.

A federal politician, of sorts, did attend Calgary's anti-M-103 demonstration. Stephen Garvey, leader of the National Advancement Party of Canada, was among the organizers of the event. 

Garvey's party — which bills itself as "proud nationalists" — fielded four candidates in the 2015 election.  

"This whole thing of Islamophobia is complete nonsense, as far as we are concerned," Garvey said. "It was created in the 1990s by the Muslim Brotherhood for the sole reason to silence criticism on Islam."

A vocal resistance

The M-103 protests were sparsely attended outside of Quebec. Indeed in most locations, opponents of the motion were greatly outnumbered by activists affiliated with a number of leftist causes. 

Many of these activists consider themselves part of the self-described "anti-fascist" movement, which includes anti-racist groups, refugee rights groups and members of Communist organizations.

Brief clashes between the anti-fascists and the far-right erupted when the two groups confronted each other in Montreal. Police arrested two people at the anti-M-103 demonstration in Toronto. 

Elsewhere, though, the scene was much less intense.

In Sherbrooke, Que., which was the scene of a small demonstration, the two sides initially appeared intent on confronting each other.

But, according to Radio-Canada, "the demonstration turned into a discussion. Everything unfolded calmly and with respect, under police surveillance."