More than 200 people showed up for duelling protests at city hall over competing versions of Canadian values Saturday, clashing verbally over what free speech and hate speech mean.
The scenario of opposing rallies was expected to play out in dozens of cities and towns across the country.
Here and in other cities, the rallies brought together supporters and opponents of Motion 103, which Mississauga Liberal MP Iqra Khalid introduced to condemn "Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination."
The Montreal-based Canadian Coalition of Concerned Citizens, a Facebook group widely reported to be linked to white supremacists, called for the rallies to oppose the parliamentary motion as a limit on free speech.
In Winnipeg, their rally brought out individuals who said they feared Muslims were trying to impose their culture and who were equally suspicious of the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an.
Khalid introduced the anti-Islamophobic motion in the Commons late last year, but it took on a greater public profile after the mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque Jan. 29. Since then, it has become a lightning rod for debate over how to define Canadian values of pluralism.
In Winnipeg, an anti-fascist activist group called Fascist Free Treaty 1 (FF1) organized its own rally to oppose the coalition’s presence and support the parliamentary motion.
By noon, their supporters represented the majority of protesters at city hall.
"When you show up, we show up," said one of their organizers, Omar Kinnarath. He identified himself as a refugee, a Muslim and a Canadian. The crowd loudly cheered him on.
"This is the beginning of the anti-fascist resistance in this country. There’s rallies like this all the way from Charlottetown to Victoria... It’s too easy to pick on Muslims," Kinnarath said after.
Several followed Kinnarath to the front steps of city hall, including Michael Champagne, a North End community activist with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities’ Meet Me at the Bell Tower rallies held Friday evenings on Selkirk Avenue.
Champagne invited protesters to the next Bell Tower event.
None of the organizers of the initial rally — to oppose the parliamentary motion — stepped forward to identify themselves.
Their Facebook page said they had planned to open the event by singing O Canada, and they banned provocative signs at the rally, calling for placards with patriotic slogans.
Some critics said that was a deliberate ruse to hide their white supremacist sympathies. Their Facebook page expressed some apprehension over the counter-protest, urging supporters to let police know if they were attending.
Winnipeg Police Service spokesman Rob Carver said police didn’t need to be called in by one side or the other. They were well aware of the competing rallies and planned to monitor them as a precautionary measure.
A dozen or more uniformed officers were visible on the edges of the crowd. At least two officers could be seen overlooking the protests from the roof of city hall.
Reports surfaced Saturday morning one of the anti-motion organizers was a neo-Nazi, a Winnipeg mother who once called herself the "Nazi Mom." Her stated beliefs and those of her husband a decade ago alarmed child welfare officials so much they temporarily removed the couple’s two children from the family home.
Several people who indicated they supported the anti-motion coalition drew clusters of counter-protesters who denounced them loudly and repeatedly while the public speeches carried on.
At one point, some protesters tore up a pink sign with hateful messages carried by one man who said he copied them from the Qur’an. He found himself confronted. Other protesters picked up the pieces to hand back to him. He left the rally.
A man wearing a bright red Trump campaign ball cap stamped with "Make America Great Again" said the cap was a deliberate call for attention to spark the counter-protesters.
"I’m a provocateur kind of guy," he said.
"I’ve been called a fascist six or seven times," said another, a tall, bearded man. He faced the counter-protesters while appearing to record them with an iPhone.
His companion, a woman who gave her name as Crystal, said she attended the coalition’s rally to support free speech.
"I don’t believe in Islamophobia. It’s a made-up word, a way to criticize anyone who criticizes Islam," she said.
Crystal also admitted to some misgivings: counter-protesters told her one of the organizers had been seen with a swastika tattooed on his arm.
"That’s not something I knew about before I got here," she said.
The rally finished off with a final word of thanks from Shahina Siddiqui, the president of the Islamic Social Services Association.
Siddiqui said afterward she felt gratified by the strong support for a pluralistic society.
"The only way to defeat hate, phobia and racism is for the majority to stand up. If we remain silent, we give a platform to racism. And today, we stood up. We showed that enough is enough," she said.