Just days after tiki torches were lit during a protest in Calgary’s municipal plaza, Calgary city council is denouncing the protest and the symbols of hate used.
Ward 13 Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart brought a motion to council Monday morning denouncing the Walk For Freedom rally on the steps of city hall.
“We want to address these acts and symbols of hatred in our community on behalf of Calgarians and to formally denounce these statements, these acts, these symbols of racism, hatred, intolerance and violence that was collectively and individually displayed on Saturday, Feb. 27,” Colley-Urquhart said.
The motion passed unanimously.
On Feb. 27 and 28, so-called anti-lockdown activists had a rally at Calgary’s municipal complex plaza and a march through parts of downtown, carrying lit tiki torches.
According to the Calgary Police Service, roughly 200 protestors and counter-protesters were at Saturday’s rally and about 70 from both groups at Sunday’s event.
On Feb. 20, at a similar protest and march in downtown Edmonton, tiki torches — a symbol associated with racist and white nationalist movements including at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. — were also brandished. Some of the same individuals appear to have been at the recent Calgary protest.
At a recent Calgary Police Commission meeting, CPS Chief Mark Neufeld linked the Edmonton protest with a mid-February protest in Chinook Centre, saying police knew the organizers of both events had links to far-right groups and have “expressed or been linked to racism, prejudice and other forms of intolerance.”
Neufeld also said the use of tiki torches at the Edmonton march was an escalation of rhetoric used by those groups.
In a statement to Global News, Walk for Freedom organizer Brad Carrigan said the use of tiki torches has “little if anything to do with white supremacy or racism.”
Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating refuted the protesters’ claims that the torches were meant to symbolize light in the Christian faith tradition.
“Anyone knows that in the Christian faith you use a candle, you don’t use a torch,” Keating said. “And you use it in a very reverent and symbolic way, rather than continuing to march around with the tiki torches.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Canada’s first muslim mayor, said the imagery of groups marching through the city’s downtown with torches in broad daylight has a clear intended meaning from a group he and other councillors called “white nationalists.”
“It’s not about heat, it’s not about light,” Nenshi said. “We know who that’s meant to intimidate.”
“What are those torches used for? They’re used to light crosses on fire.”
Ward 5 Coun. George Chahal said seeing torches being brandished was personal, being a racialized member of council.
“But it’s even more personal when we had a failed cross burning on the front lawn of my house,” Chahal said.
“Or the hate letters we’ve received over the years.”
A difficult balance
Keating said any claims that a group of people marching with lit torches isn’t threatening and racist imagery is disingenuous.
“Those individuals who continue to be unsympathetic to the sensitivity of what a symbol means is basically saying the words out loud, regardless of what they actually verbalize,” Keating said.
Richard Hinse, director of community standards whose responsibility includes enforcing city bylaws, said the city relies on CPS to lay charges in relation to hate speech.
“As the Criminal Code of Canada captures these types of very serious offenses, we rely on our partners in the Calgary Police Service to conduct these complex investigations after which they must consult with the Crown’s office prior to laying out any charges,” Hinse told council.
Hinse, a former CPS officer, said balancing the Charter right of freedom of expression and the parts of the Criminal Code that address hate speech is a challenge for law enforcement.
“This is probably one of the most difficult areas of law,” Hinse said. “And that’s why the calls for the consultation of the Crown in regards to laying of charges.”
“We’ve never been tested, in my view, like we’re being tested today on how we balance those things,” Colley-Urquhart remarked.
In a statement, CPS said there are “specific thresholds” to be met in order to charge someone with inciting hate.
“This threshold is set high and includes inciting hatred against an identifiable group which is likely to lead to a breech of the peace,” the statement said. “We had officers at the event, including our hate crimes investigator, gathering evidence in relation to this matter.
“We have liaised with the Crown and it has been determined that the events this weekend did not meet the required threshold for charges.”
Urquhart said racist views have been held and racist acts have been committed by Albertans in the past, and said the bolder actions need to be stopped.
“Now they’re in the open, and we know that these things can become more emboldened over time if we don’t assert ourselves as elected officials,” she said.
–with files from Jackie Wilson, Global News