If there were an infectious disease going around, and all the best advice from independent experts indicated that one simple little thing could dramatically reduce the harm that disease did-- would you take that advice? That's definitely the question of the day. When faced with a pandemic of far right politics and hatred, Canada’s civil power clearly did not take the best advice.
When faced with a pandemic of far right politics and hatred, Canada’s civil power clearly did not take the best advice.
On February 13, 2022, a group of activists in Ottawa, Ontario got together because they’d had enough. After three weeks of what they call, ‘occupation’, by a convoy of mixed far-right, vaccine conspiracy and anti-establishment protesters besieging their city, the residents of Ottawa took it upon themselves to do something about the situation.
All convoy trucks at the Bank & Riverside blockade have now been sent on their way away from downtown, only after they were made to remove racist decals and flags from their vehicles. The people of Ottawa have won the Battle of Billings Bridge. #OccupiedOttawa #ottawa #ottnews— Dylan Penner (@DylanPenner) February 13, 2022
They turned out in the streets and stood, physically, in the path of a truck ‘convoy’ passing through their neighborhood. They refused police requests to clear the street, they held the line and forced every one of the trucks in that column to turn around and retreat, and only after they had removed pro-convoy signage from their vehicles. This incident has become known as the ‘Battle of Billings Bridge.’
Jim Watson, mayor of Ottawa since 2010, has been accused of cutting a backroom deal with the pro-Convoy demonstrators. Watson condemned the Billings bridge counter-demonstrators saying they took valuable policing resources away from ‘central areas’. This prompted much mirth and derision from residents of a city where police have taken no meaningful, or really, observable action to mitigate the harm of the Convoy to its residents, for three weeks.
The warning signs of today’s convoy crisis were first seen in Ottawa four years ago when far right demonstrators, mostly hailing from across Ontario, descended on the National Capital Region. On June 3, 2017 far right groups marched in Ottawa as a part of a protest called the “Million Canadian March.” In truth, they numbered fewer than 500 demonstrators, but in context this marked an important first step in the cultural conflict which is playing out on the streets of Ottawa in 2022.
The reason given for that first March and rally in Ottawa, was racist outrage over federal Motion 103 (M-103) which sought to condemn Islamophobia in all its forms. These original demonstrations were explicitly stage managed by hateful racists, and closely linked in rhetoric and belief, to the Conservative Party of Canada, the civil power's official opposition. It is correct to style these, in an international context as "opposition group" protests.
At the time in 2017, Ottawa Against Fascism was in its heyday. A sizeable group of counter-demonstrators marched in the capital against a collection of far right groups, including the Canadian Combat Coalition, 3% Militia, Jewish Defence League, Soldiers of Odin, The Proud Boys and Pegida. Counter-demonstrators were from a variety of community groups, including religious communities, organized labour, communist and anarchist organizing spaces.
Some antifascists held banners on Parliament Hill decrying the far-right protesters. Others marched in a bloc through downtown, using a megaphone to condemn hate and bigotry to passersby. Following a completely contrived ‘violent incident’ in nearby Confederation park, six counter-demonstrators were arrested by Ottawa Police and charged varyingly with assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, robbery and uttering threats. The man who had them charged would go on to become a nationally infamous racist buffoon and career loser. That was the person on whose word Ottawa police arrested six brave antifascists in June 2017. I know this because I was there, and stood with the “jail-solidarity” team outside the locked down police station in support of the activists who were arrested.
In late 2017, following a summer of escalations which included the lethal ‘Unite the Right’ demonstrations in Charlottesville, the far right returned to Ottawa. Heavily armoured riot police with shields and batons were deployed on Parliament Hill for a demonstration featuring the anti-immigration groups La Meute and The Storm Alliance. Antifascists were met (and brutalized) by riot police. Several were arrested.
In February 2018, I was invited to travel to Ottawa to run a training for antifascist activists in that city. It was a part of an activist skill-share intended to give Ottawa antifascists some introductory concepts and share experience we’d gained in Toronto’s antifascist scene confronting monthly rallies by far right groups like Pegida and the Soldiers of Odin. I addressed a group of predominantly young activists eager to protect their communities from a growing far-right movement.
In March 2018, demonstrators from Ottawa Against Fascism confronted supporters of the Proud Boys, men’s rights activists and members of a campus ‘free speech’ club at a planned talk by “anti-feminist” professor Janice Fiamengo. Following a fracas in the library’s lobby, that talk was ultimately canceled in a decisive victory for antifascist groups. The Proud Boys are now a designated terrorist group in Canada. While I don’t fundamentally agree with the state’s use of such designations, this is important to point out because this wasn’t just an ideological brawl in the library, but a concerted effort to hold the line against fascism, preserving public safety in situations where the civil power was both unwilling and unable to do so.
Over the next year, Ottawa’s antifascist scene was rocked by scandals that went unreported in public. There are reasons for this, including both privacy and security, but it merits some general mention. These are circumstances all activist groups can at some point fall prey to. In addition to activists facing charges accrued over 3 years of dedicated street-level resistance to organized fascism, there were controversies stemming from sexual harassment issues within the activist community. From what I have heard, this brought much of the organizing to a standstill. I believe the survivors.
I also believe that beyond that specific incident, the general burnout and degradation of antifascist capabilities in Ottawa came as a result at least in part, due to repression by the state. I’ll refrain from making any specific allegations, I will say that it is wholly unsurprising to me in a city full of spies, that the only independent group focused on public safety through militant antifascism would encounter repression as well as internal political problems and turmoil. I’ll also point to the precedent of Federal undercovers posing as fascists (there’s a joke in there, somewhere) to harass anti-racists with doxxing, rape and death threats. Notably this campaign of state-backed terror directed toward members of the far left was followed by a personal endorsement and political cover from a respected member of the establishment-linked non-profit community.
I don't truthfully know what the 'Feds' were thinking in 2019, probably that they were "too big to fail", or that their strategy was working and that they had things under control. Now the very bad thing that antifascists had cried Cassandra about, (and that they brutalized and attacked them for opposing) is camped quite literally on the Federal lawn. It would be hilarious if it weren't terrifying.
Those same Feds just got caught flat-footed, totally unaware. Preparing for lone wolf violence, and worried about left wing 'anti-authority extremism' it's clear even a year after the January 6 insurrection in Washington, DC that the brightest minds of our intelligence community are shooting in the dark, at the wrong targets.
And it’s clear they viewed antifascists as ‘violent extremists’, equivalent to or even worse than, the same people who stood up to the groups now running riot in the capital. Thus, antifascists were subjected to the treatment the state reserves for terrorists. There’s a reason so many formerly highly active antifascist groups weren’t prepared to mobilize against the convoy: their organizing structures were disrupted. I'd advise you to read upon COINTELPRO and specifically, the CSIS/RCMP doctrine of 'Threat Reduction', which can involve many tactics, but usually results in the isolation of individuals whose words or actions might radicalize others to violence and the coordination of defamation campaigns against them. There's a playbook.
By February 2019, Antifascism in Ottawa was limited to 40 counter-demonstrators who showed up for the #FreedomConvoy2022 precursor, "United We Roll". Hundreds of far right supporters drove in trucks across the country, to Ottawa to demonstrate for two days at Parliament Hill. In many ways this was a direct dry-run for the 2022 convoy organizing. “United We Roll” empowered far right groups, established logistical and coordination capabilities, and lead to a corresponding uptick in far right activity and violence nationwide. Like the Million Canadian March, 'United We Roll' was inextricably linked to the apparatuses of Conservative party organizing, and was a direct precursor to the 2022 convoy, overlapping in terms of the personalities, groups and networks involved and the general organizing structure of the protests. While a sheepish Andrew Scheer went down to meet his party's militant wing in 2019, 2022's convoy upended Erin O'Toole's Conservative party, removing O'Toole as leader, in favour of an insurrectionary and extremist base who set up shop in the capital.
While Ottawa did manage a counter-demonstration to 'United We Roll', it did not feature prominently in local or national news coverage, nor did it disrupt the far right organizing effort either locally or nationally. But, not to worry, even though the counter-protest was a footnote, an NGO with deep ties to the Liberal party, acting as spokespeople for the broader movement, linked ‘United we Roll’ to a hate affiliated groups at the bottom of an 1600 word article in the Ottawa Citizen. To quote “End Civ”’s Derek Jensen, "Yeah! We got some press!" This isn’t what winning looks like, folks.
Every single independent anti-fascist researcher who works long, dangerous, demoralizing and unpaid hours to document and oppose the far right does more valuable work than sunshine list police intelligence units, NGO execs or salaried federal spies. It's not just the research, either. Antifascism, (the offline, applied kind that is wholly unconcerned with clout, twitter engagement or secret back-room agreements) uses disruptive tactics, sabotage and physical confrontation to defeat far right organizing.
Those are things we should NEVER ask, expect or trust police to do. As the antifascist mantra goes, “We keep us safe.” And to be clear, if Antifascist groups had the same organizing capacity, institutional memory or preparedness they had 2017-2018 and hadn't been torn apart under sustained attacks, infiltration and entryism by the state, institutions and the corporate media, the 2022 convoy might never have made it to Ottawa in the first place. “Antifa” works in mysterious ways.
If a legion of corrupt liberal mayors including Jim Watson, Toronto’s John Tory, Hamilton’s Fred Eisenberger hadn't have spent years coddling hate groups and allowing police (the same police suddenly "unable" to deal with the convoy) to oppress and brutalize antifascist communities, grassroots activists could have sent the convoy packing in a single day of nationwide counter-protest.
And suddenly, liberal voices are shrill, directing some degree of abuse and blame for a societal problem they enabled, toward the only group that was resisting the slide into fascism to begin with. “Where are you?” “Do something, anything!” Business owners, wealthy urbanites and monied progressives let antifascists get carted away without outcry for five years. They can’t act shocked when the outcome is fascists in their streets or outside their homes.
There’s a ray of hope of course, as concerned, civic minded residents band together to resist fascism in the streets in the same way we saw at Billings Bridge. What the “old-guard”, experienced antifascists must do, right now, is get out there and support those communities with knowledge, political theory, advice and training, by imparting some of that institutional memory and antifascist history to build the movement that we needed yesterday, today—before it’s too late.
Antifascism is the necessary vaccine for a hateful far-right epidemic plaguing society: civic-minded people, taking it upon themselves to confront the far right in the streets. It's clear that up until now, our elected leaders have been in denial about the disease, and resistant to the cure. Fitting. Rejecting the best advice of experts and resisting the obvious cure is a phenomenon we’re all intimately familiar with by now.
And, as the civil power considers the full extent of their folly, invoking the Emergencies Act in a desperate bid to save themselves, all Antifascists can do now is reactivate old networks, train the newcomers and prepare to defend their own communities from a resurgent-turned-insurgent far right, again. And try not to shout, “We told you so.”