An ugly confrontation unfolded on the streets of Newcastle, England, last weekend.
On one side were approximately 2,000 people of all colours and creeds who had assembled under the banner of Newcastle Unites. On the other, a group of just under 400 people who came together to protest what they perceive as the Islamization of the western world; a “Muslim tide” they claim threatens the fabric of British society and its traditional values. The latter group was an apparent offshoot of the far-right organization PEGIDA — or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Since its formation in Germany last year, the group has managed to draw thousands into the streets in various European cities with what many perceive as a divisive and racist message.
In January, with little fanfare and even less media coverage, PEGIDA landed in Quebec.
A Facebook page set up by the group, featuring photos from PEGIDA demonstrations around the world, had attracted just under 600 “likes” as of Wednesday, and their first official rally is set to take place on March 28 in St-Léonard. The Montreal Gazette reached out to the organizers behind the page on Wednesday, but they did not respond to a request for comment.
While small, the group is not alone. PEGIDA Quebec’s appearance came only two months after members of another group, dubbed Québec Identitaire, appeared to take credit for vandalizing four mosques in the Quebec City region. A Facebook group bearing the Québec Identitaire name had 502 members as of Wednesday, with the group’s description making it clear “we are not a radical extremist group,” but that “we firmly believe a native Quebecer has the right to refuse to have cultures and religious rituals imposed by ‘adopted Quebecers’ without being demonized.”
In February, the Jewish Defence League — a group that the FBI has branded “a violent extremist organization” — resurfaced in Montreal and attempted to form an organized chapter, claiming that someone needed to properly monitor the city’s Muslim extremism “problem.” They were quickly rebuffed by Jewish community leaders and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who tweeted that the JDL was “not welcome” in his city.
That frosty reception did not surprise Frank Chalk, director of Concordia University’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights. While right-wing, anti-Islamic groups have recently found a strong foothold in countries where multiculturalism is not the norm, he said, they are unlikely to gain widespread support in Quebec.
“They’ll do poorly here, I think,” Chalk said. “There’s hardly anything (on the PEGIDA Quebec Facebook page) to appeal to people here in Montreal or in other communities in Quebec … I think Quebec and the rest of Canada do a very good job of trying to be open to groups that have different religions and cultures. We have found that the key is mutual respect. With respect comes the opportunity for dialogue, for social interaction, for sharing with each other our music, our poetry, our literature and many of our values.”
In Germany, where PEGIDA has garnered the most support, people are not accustomed to anything like the multicultural realities that many Canadians have learned to embrace, Chalk noted.
“So it’s quite a shock for the Germans to have 120,000 refugees pouring in from Syria and other sites of atrocity in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The Jewish Defence League, for its part, has been present in waves in Montreal over the years, said Chalk, but there has been little demand for an “extra-legal militia” to protect Montreal’s Jewish population.
“Some of the most respected rabbis and community leaders have said ‘We don’t need you guys.’ Yes, there are anti-Semitic incidents … but we are living in a community of law and the normal security agents offer whatever protection is needed.”
Even if they are not drawing thousands into the streets, the Canadian government is apparently watching right-wing groups like PEGIDA, Québec Identitaire and the JDL closely. The Canadian Press reported on Tuesday that Canada’s spy agency (CSIS) recently advised the office of Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney of its concerns during a secret September briefing, noting that Canada’s burgeoning anti-Islam movement poses an “ongoing risk, particularly as its proponents advocate violence.”
CSIS did not respond to a request for additional comment about the briefing.