Picture this: a group of people have come together to organize a demonstration. They are interrupted by a second group of people, who try to stop them because they feel that the demonstration is offensive to their beliefs. In this situation, you’d think that a group like Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) — who claim, according to their website, to support “every person’s right to free speech” — would jump to the defence of the individuals whose right to protest was being threatened.
SSFS is a “non-partisan” group that wishes to uphold “personal freedom of expression, conscience, and belief,” and “political freedom in expressing beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints.” Their mantra was put to the test when SSFS found themselves in a controversy relating to an incident in Halifax that occurred earlier this month.
On July 1, a group of Indigenous activists held a mourning ceremony in front of a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of the city of Halifax. The Indigenous group staged a protest in reference to Cornwallis’ unrestrained violence and persecution of the Mi’kmaq people. During one part of the ceremony, dozens of people gathered around the statue to watch Chief Grizzly Mamma shave her head in an act of mourning — an especially symbolic act as Cornwallis infamously issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.
As this happened, however, a group of five men approached the group with the intention to disrupt or interrupt the ceremony. The so-called “Halifax Five” identified themselves as members of the Maritime Chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group founded by Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media. The group identifies themselves as a “pro-Western fraternal organization” for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” They hold that “The West is the Best” and oppose feminism.
McInnes himself is no role model; one of his claims to fame is an extremely offensive video rant published in March of 2017, in which he stated he was “becoming anti-Semitic.” This video was praised by white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer.
Not only was the Halifax Five incident horribly disappointing in light of Canada’s colonial past, it also meant drawing a great deal of attention away from what the activists were actually trying to say. Canadians need to learn how to acknowledge the violent colonial actions of well-respected figures like Cornwallis, but instead of opening up a dialogue about Halifax’s past and Cornwallis’ actions, media attention on the Proud Boys and the fallout from the incident drew the public’s eyes away from the purpose of the ceremony itself.
The exact nature of what the Halifax Five did and said isn’t precisely clear. Some reports characterized their actions as a disruption of the Indigenous protest, while others, including SSFS, seemed to say that the news reports were skewed with left-leaning bias. Perhaps the Proud Boys perceive criticism of Cornwallis and the actions undertaken against Indigenous people under colonial rule to be offensive to their belief that “The West is the Best.” Had the Halifax Five held some type of pro-Cornwallis demonstration the next day, or even restricted their disagreement to the internet or to a different place away from the ceremony, this would be a different conversation. It is clear, however, that the Proud Boys sought to at the very least interrupt the ceremony by singing, waving a flag, and ultimately making a scene that disrupted the proceedings.
In light of this, one could argue that the actions of the Proud Boys ought to at least trigger conversations about the rights of the Indigenous group to protest peacefully and express their views freely. Accordingly, you might expect that SSFS would decry the attempt of the Proud Boys to try to suppress the free expression of the Indigenous protesters — but the exact opposite happened. On July 15, SSFS took the side of the Halifax Five and organized a rally in their support at Queen’s Park.
SSFS might argue that they only intended to express support for the right of the Proud Boys and the Halifax Five to organize peacefully. This is indeed what the rally itself seemed to be about, and would certainly align with SSFS’s stated philosophy. According to SSFS member and rally organizer Simon Capobianco, “The major purpose [of the rally] was… to defend the Constitutional rights of the Halifax five… One of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the charter is the right to freedom of assembly, and… [the military members] were in a public space, they were assembling peacefully.”
However, this seemingly noble purpose is misguided, and potentially reveals the true motivations behind the actions the group has taken in favour of free speech. Capobianco’s statement is somewhat confusing, considering that you could very easily say the same of the Indigenous activists — they were also assembling peacefully, and were well within their right to do so. In the past, SSFS has even decried interruptions of their own proceedings, such as when the Toronto Action Forum, an event co-hosted on campus by SSFS and Generation Screwed on February 4, was interrupted and ultimately halted by protests. Why would they jump to defend the disruption posed by the Proud Boys, but condemn the protests in response to their own events?
It should also be noted that while there was thankfully no violence as a result of the confrontation between the Halifax Five and the Indigenous activists, back in April, the Proud Boys announced the formation of a “military division” to be headed by Kyle Chapman, who had been released from jail the previous month on suspicion of a felony assault with a deadly weapon.
What makes things worse is the fact that much of the focus of this rally has been on the presence of white supremacist Paul Fromm and SSFS’s ever-shifting explanations and apologies for his presence. Though SSFS’s claim to fame is supporting free expression regardless of the content of the messages, in this case, they appeared to waver in their stance. First, they made a statement on Facebook claiming that they did not know what Fromm looked like and hadn’t been aware that he was attending the rally. The statement was later deleted from their Facebook page, and replaced with a YouTube apology, after receiving numerous negative comments from skeptics.
Let’s give SSFS the benefit of the doubt and say that they really didn’t know Fromm was there, or at least that they did not intend for him to be there and do not in any way endorse his views. At the least, the fact that SSFS jumped to backtrack when faced with a real-life white supremacist demonstrates some serious inconsistencies in their logic. In their initial post, SSFS stated that “if we had been aware of Paul Fromm’s identity and affiliations at the time of the rally… we would have prevented him from using our megaphone.”
This particular statement seems at odds with the group’s alleged commitment to the importance of free and unbridled speech, regardless of the nature of the messages — does this mean that SSFS is recognizing the danger of giving a platform to white supremacists and other hateful people and groups?
If you’re keeping score, here’s the deal: Indigenous activists chose to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly to protest a statue of a man who ordered many acts of violence to be committed against the Mi’kmaq people after founding a city on territory that hadn’t been ceded. They held a protest and a mourning ceremony for Indigenous people who had been hurt or killed. The activists were interrupted by five men connected to a “pro-Western” chauvinist group with a paramilitary branch founded by a far-right, possible anti-Semite. Finally, SSFS, a “non-partisan” student group, decided to hold a rally supporting those five men in their brave quest to interrupt an Indigenous ceremony — and a notorious white supremacist just happened to show up and speak. SSFS then apologized for his presence.
What’s perhaps most ironic about this whole thing was that, in the apology video, SSFS president Marilyn Jang also apologized for holding the rally at the 48th Highlanders of Canada Regimental Memorial, saying it was “an extremely unthoughtful choice of venue for any rally… Memorials should solely be seen as a symbol of remembrance and a way to honour the fallen.” I agree: it seems like memorials and memorial ceremonies are inappropriate places to espouse political ideologies. Surely this logic should also apply to the activists memorializing fallen Indigenous folks as well?
SSFS has always argued that their only goal is to support freedom of speech, regardless of political affiliation. But this incident seems to prove that the group is cherry-picking whose rights to support — and that everyone else needs to step back and, well, be quiet.
Adina Heisler is an incoming third-year student at University College, studying Women and Gender Studies and English.