thumb-2023-06-06-notre-dame-ottawa-anti-trans-billboard-chris This article is more than 1 year old

Far-Right Extremists Keep Targeting Canadian Schools and Residential Areas. It’s Getting Out Of Control.

Ottawa school board speaks out against “increasing trend” of extremists targeting schools after students told to “shelter-in-place”

After three Ottawa schools were targeted by a mob of anti-transgender extremists, some residents who live in a quiet corner of west-end Ottawa are just confused how their front lawns turned into the latest culture war battleground.

“This is a very quiet residential area,” one elderly Broadview Avenue resident told PressProgress. “The majority are retirees, it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Why us?”

The elderly resident, who requested not to be named, was “very upset” about the people who descended on Broadview Avenue last Friday. She later found garbage and cigarette butts strewn across her neatly-trimmed yard.

“We have nothing to do with these protests that caused so much trouble,” she added. “It’s almost like they penalized us.”

Homes along Broadview Avenue in west-end Ottawa

Homes along Broadview Avenue in west-end Ottawa (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

Another retired Broadview resident said he had to ask police to clear protesters from his driveway so he could drive to a funeral he was attending that afternoon.

Jeff Leiper, a local city councillor, says he’s heard from “maybe a half-dozen neighbours on the street who were largely just dismayed.”

“One resident seemed pretty annoyed that people were stepping on his new sod,” Leiper told PressProgress, adding most people just seemed “pissed at the drama.”

Anti-2SLGBTQIA+ groups, livestreamers and right-wing media personalities descended on the residential neighbourhood last week in support of a BC anti-trans activist described by school officials as a man who “travels around the world targeting schools and disrupting student learning.”

One rally promoter said organizers had been planning it for a “couple of months.”

Save Canada and Josh Alexander; "Billboard" Chris Elston; livestreamers Harrison Faulkner, Donald Smith, Mocha Bezirgan and Leigh Stewart

(L-R) Save Canada; “Billboard” Chris Elston; livestreamers Harrison Faulkner, Donald Smith, Mocha Bezirgan and Leigh Stuart (C. Dacey, Facebook)

Large, well-funded organizations like the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition had put out calls to supporters to show up at the schools. The rally was also promoted in private Facebook groups used by convoy supporters and people that previously disrupted Ottawa school board meetings over COVID-19 rules.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board had sent a formal letter asking the rally’s two out-of-town organizers, anti-trans activist Chris Elston and Josh Alexander of the Christian Nationalist youth group “Save Canada,” to “find an alternate location.”

“Schools are places of learning and should not be targeted for political protests,” states a copy of the school board’s June 2 letter to Elston and Alexander that was obtained by PressProgress. “The intentional planning of protest activities on a street which is home to schools for students in grades K-12 is unacceptable.”

“There are many public spaces and political offices which are more appropriate venues for protests. I urge you to find a more appropriate location that does not create a risk to the safety of children.”

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has documented numerous reports of “violent” and “antagonistic behaviour” by far-right extremists at the rally.

Videos from the rally show chaotic scenes with anti-trans extremists attempting to march up and down the street, at times charging at and shoving local community members who showed up and defended the schools.

Elementary and high school students at all three schools were told to “shelter-in-place” due to the disruptions caused by the rally.

“Our school has invoked the ‘shelter-in-place protocol’ as a result of a call from the Ottawa Police Service indicating that there was a potentially dangerous situation in the neighbourhood,” stated an alert sent to Notre Dame parents Friday morning that was obtained by PressProgress.

“Outside doors are locked and no one is permitted to enter or leave the building.”

“The students were in their classrooms but the doors were locked,” an Ottawa Catholic School Board spokesperson confirmed to PressProgress. “We did that on the advice of police.”

Despite advising school officials there was a “dangerous situation,” Ottawa Police later issued an update explaining that their role that day was simply to “keep the peace” and “allow for lawful demonstrations.”

Ottawa Police told PressProgress the “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” obligates them to protect the “rights and fundamental freedoms” of protesters, even when they target schools, but qualified that these “rights are not without limits.”

The City of Ottawa confirmed organizers of the anti-trans rally did not request or obtain a demonstration permit or communicate with City officials about their plans.

Homes on Broadview Ave (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

In a public statement Wednesday, the OCDSB said the school board is deeply concerned about the growing threat these groups pose to students at their schools.

“We are concerned about the increasing trend to target schools as places of protest. This not only creates safety concerns, it also takes the time and focus away from student learning,” the OCDSB stated.

“It does seem to be a disturbing trend,” Stephanie Kirkey, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation District 25 told PressProgress. “We’ve seen it since the fall, we’ve had some threats against some of our trustees and one trustee in particular whose encountered some really horrific stuff.”

“Naturally, these kinds of protests embolden hate and often the outcome of this is an increase in violence,” Kirkey added. “I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to keep students focused on lessons knowing what was going on outside.”

Those concerns are echoed by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, which represents teachers at Notre Dame, and notes that the anti-trans groups are out-of-step with “our faith and belief that everyone is deserving of God’s love.”

“Reports of disruptive, anti-human rights protests happening near schools are concerning,” OECTA President Barb Dobrowolski told PressProgress. “Students and staff must be protected from such hateful, transphobic, homophobic demonstrations.”

“Every student and staff member deserves to learn and work in a safe and inclusive environment.”

Notre Dame High School

Notre Dame High School (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

Lyra Evans, an Ottawa school trustee who is openly trans, says organized groups have been disrupting Ottawa’s school board meetings since last fall.

Evans told PressProgress “increased anti-trans rhetoric” from political leaders and the media is inciting “anti-trans people to show up” to board meetings, including many who aren’t even local parents, simply to “disrupt the meetings.”

“Trans students probably make up less than 1% of the student population … The amount of time and energy that we are spending on such a small percentage detracts from all of the other work we need to do.”

Over the last number of months, the same groups have repeatedly disrupted school board meetings across Canada, targeted drag storytime events at public libraries and staged protests at schools and school board offices.

Campaign Life Coalition is currently running a campaign to withdraw students from schools in protest of Pride month.

The toxic rhetoric is creating space for random acts of harassment and hate. A Kelowna man was recently banned from a school after interrogating a 9-year-old athlete about her gender, while a white supremacist was charged with criminal harassment by Windsor Police after sneaking into a hospital room and taking photos of the dying father of a local 2SLGBTQIA+ activist.

Many of the ringleaders behind these protests are the same people recently involved in the Freedom Convoy, covid conspiracies and anti-vaccine protests  — many recently pivoted to anti-2SLGBTQIA+ issues in only the last several months.

“The biggest names in the Canadian far-right have pivoted to this issue,” Canadian Anti-Hate Network Deputy Director Elizabeth Simons told PressProgress.

“Many of the networks and influencers involved in the anti-2SLGBTQ+ hate targeted at school boards and drag events got their start, or at least their notoriety, during the Freedom Convoy and the COVID conspiracy theory movement.”

Nepean High School

Nepean High School (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

The rally is only the latest example of far-right extremists, motivated to create viral videos and images that can be shared on social media, making incursions into residential neighbourhoods and other domestic spaces.

The 2022 “Freedom Convoy” saw far-right extremist groups occupy downtown Ottawa and cause violent disturbances in residential areas for three weeks. During the convoy, there were multiple incidents involving occupiers harassing students, parents and teachers at local elementary schools.

In advance of Canada Day 2022, many of the same characters staged a march through suburban Ottawa. Prior to that, federal politicians and journalists had been stalked and confronted in the streets of Ottawa by individuals attempting to place them under “citizen’s arrest.”

During the pandemic, anti-vaccine activists and covid conspiracists staged protests at hospitals and vaccine clinics across Canada, showed up at the homes of politicians and public health officials, and even held disruptive protests inside shopping malls.

Last month, convoy groups in Niagara Falls attempted to take over boxstore parking lots at Canadian Tire and Home Depot to throw “anti-Trudeau” parties.

Ottawa school trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth is calling for “safe zones” at schools modelled after existing laws protecting abortion clinics and hospitals.

“We must appeal to all levels of government to create ‘safe zones’ around schools, to make it an offence to hold protests in the vicinity of schools that target or intimidate students and staff on the basis of their gender identity, sexuality, race, religion, or other protected categories under applicable human rights legislation,” Kaplan-Myrth told PressProgress.

“Schools and the areas around schools should not be the sites of hate-based protests.”

While there is growing interest in Kaplan-Myrth’s proposal, others say it’s the wrong approach – even if they’re sympathetic with its “well-meaning” aims.

On Thursday, Community Solidarity Ottawa, a network of activists, labour organizers and local groups launched as a community response to the far-right, released a statement to “strongly oppose calls to create ‘safe zone’ legislation.”

“We already have laws in place that are supposed to protect us,” CSO said. “The problem is not a lack of legislation. It is that enforcement of that legislation is handled by the police.”

CSO points out ‘safe zones’ around hospitals have already been used to crack down on labour actions and protests by healthcare workers and could be used to arrest students engaging in legitimate acts of expression or protesting school policies.

The group advocates more community organizing and training to take direct action against far-right extremists, as well as more outreach to religious communities and local organizations to clearly show they are unwelcome them when they arrive.

Ottawa city councillor Ariel Troster says she is asking herself how best to “protect schools and Pride events without undermining the constitutional right to protest,” but recognizes what she’s seeing on the ground is a disturbing new phenomenon.

“There’s a big difference between a protest march with a specific and legitimate target, and a frightening mob intent on starting physical fights, shoving phone cameras in people’s faces for right-wing livestreams, and harassing children, parents and teachers,” Troster told PressProgress. “What we are seeing now is much, much different than anything I have seen before.”

Troster said that while she’s “interested in finding out if it would be possible to extend the provincial bubble law that protects abortion clinics to school zones, libraries and Pride events,” she acknowledges there are real concerns these laws could be used against counterprotesters or striking workers.

Broadview Public School

Broadview Public School (Luke LeBrun, PressProgress)

Jeff Leiper agrees it’s a “real” possibility that safety zones could end up being used against students, but thinks action from the provincial or federal governments will inevitably be needed.

“I did tell residents over the weekend that I agree with the Mayor, residents and others who want to protect kids’ ability to go to school and learn in a safe space,” Leiper said. “I expect conversations around how Council can encourage the province to take action will take place in the coming days.”

While local politicians have big questions to debate, elderly residents on Broadview Avenue say they still don’t understand what the “far-right” mob that trampled on their lawns was up in arms about — all they want is peace and quiet.

“We are retirees,” one resident said. “Why would we get involved with all this?”


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Luke LeBrun
Luke LeBrun is the Editor of PressProgress. His reporting focuses on the federal political scene, right-wing politics as well as issues in technology, media and culture.

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