As conflict flared on campus between protesters and attendees of a far-right talk about free speech and immigration, RCMP were called to the scene. Despite shoving and arguments, no one was injured and the talk continued after slight delays.
On October 9, UBC Students Against Bigotry (SAB) and other protesters gathered to demonstrate against a 7 p.m. talk that featured far-right speakers Ricardo Duchesne and Mark Hecht. The event, titled Academic Freedom to Discuss the Impact of Immigrant Diversity upon Canada, took place in the Friedman Building and was organized by the UBC Students for Freedom of Expression (SFE).
A major figure in the Canadian far right, Duchesne has been instrumental in the spread of “The Great Replacement” theory, the notion that immigration will lead to the decline in numbers — or “replacement” — of white Canadians.
Despite denying accusations of being a white supremacist, he has appeared on white supremacist websites and podcasts that also defend slavery and eugenics. Duchesne argues that in order to preserve their heritage and pride, historically white nations ought to stop allowing immigrants into the country all but completely.
Duchesne recently retired early from his tenured position in the department of social science at the University of New Brunswick after over 100 instructors at the university wrote a letter condemning his views.
A geography instructor at Mount Royal University, Mark Hecht sparked controversy after he published a September 9 op-ed in The Vancouver Sun calling for the re-evaluation of multiculturalism as a core Canadian value. Citing research from an anti-Muslim think tank amongst others, he argued that excessive cultural diversity disrupts “social trust” so immigration should be limited.
The op-ed was taken down later in the day after The Sun received significant backlash online and from its own newsroom.
Prior to the event, the AMS released an official statement condemning the event, its speakers and UBC for allowing it to take place on university property.
“The AMS is concerned that this event could enable discrimination, and we have zero tolerance for speakers and events that create an inequitable and unsafe environment for students on our campus,” read the statement.
The talk and protest also came after anti-SOGI speaker Jenn Smith was allowed to hold an event on campus in June, which got UBC banned from the July Vancouver Pride Parade as a result.
The controversy prompted discussion at UBC’s Board of Governors about whether the university should expand its Booking Policy or Equity, Diversity and Inclusion office to regulate extreme speakers’ events on campus. They are expected to discuss more concrete proposals at the Board’s meetings in late November, which the AMS is advocating for.
“We will play an active role in ensuring that the University takes action on this issue, and we are supportive of the University’s commitment to crucial discussions surrounding the Space Rental Policy (UP9) and the Academic Freedom Statement,” wrote the AMS. “This work must involve the voices of students who have taken action to show their concerns on this topic.”
But despite pushback, UBC Provost and VP Academic Andrew Szeri announced in a September 24 statement that while UBC disagrees with the speakers, he believes they should have a right to speak freely and will allow the SFE event to take place.
“Over hundreds of years, universities have played a central role in providing a forum where ideas can be expressed, debated, and challenged, and where participants can gain insight and greater mutual understanding,” he wrote.
“Discussion and debate cannot occur without the free and lawful expression of ideas, even those we may fundamentally disagree with, find distasteful, or even repugnant.”
SAB first began to assemble by the Knoll outside the Nest at about 6 p.m. According to a member who wished to remain anonymous to avoid targeted harassment from far-right groups, SAB was the only group involved in organizing the demonstration, but they invited the general public.
“We put out a call for anyone and everyone who opposes fascism and neo-Nazis to join us. There were no particular groups that we collaborated with this time, but there were people from all over who came out and joined us,” said the SAB member.
The protesters were dressed in mostly black clothing, and many were wearing masks and bandanas to conceal their identities. Blasting protest-themed music, they wrote messages in chalk and carried signs that read “Watch Out! Nazis on campus,” “Refugees welcome,” “Shame on you Santa Ono,” “Fuck Duchesne and his race war,” among others.
When they arrived at the Friedman Building at around 6:30 p.m., Campus Security officers were standing at the door to prevent the protesters from getting in. The protesters, numbering around 30 to 50 people, clustered around the entrance, chanting “Immigrants in, racists out!” and “Fuck off, Nazi scum” while beating the windows to disrupt the talk.
In order for attendees to enter the venue, two security guards had to pin open the door against the crowd as attendees navigated through the demonstrators. On several occasions, shoving matches and arguments ensued, though it appeared that people from both sides instigated the altercations.
The anonymous SAB member said it was “not [SAB’s] intention to barricade the door” and that there were many protesters present who were not members of the organization.
“As far as I'm aware, no one from Students Against Bigotry was involved in any kind of violence in any way. We, as a group, were engaged in nonviolent protest in front of the building and were violently attacked by attendees at the event while Campus Security and RCMP officers stood by and watched,” said the SAB member.
Attendee Korky Day said he and his companions had to “elbow” their way through the crowd, which led to minor “violence” on both sides.
“It was more like a wrestling match with voluntary participation on both sides, I would say. Nothing that would hold up in court as assault, I don’t think,” said Day. “I’m a fit, tall person, even though I’m 71. But some people, I think, were afraid to go through.”
Alifya Sohail, a third-year history and international relations student at UBC and member of Stand With Kashmir, attended the talk to challenge Duchesne’s views on the refugee crisis. But she said she was also accosted by protesters. As an activist herself, Sohail said she was disappointed in SAB’s tactics.
“[After the event, I asked SAB], ‘Why did you alienate people that were sympathetic to your cause?’” said Sohail. “There’s a certain way to have a protest. There’s a certain way to have an activist movement. Especially if you believe that your cause is of more moral value than the one that you're opposing, then there is a certain high ground that you can take.”
Szeri confirmed that UBC Campus Security called RCMP to ensure that the talk was allowed to continue.
“... due to concern for the safety and security of the UBC community, Campus Security in consultation with UBC administration contacted University RCMP,” wrote Szeri in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey. “With the assistance of University RCMP, the event went ahead as planned.”
Initially, only two RCMP cars arrived at about 6:45 p.m. to assist Campus Security, but as many as seven cars were present later in the night. The protesters dispersed at 8:30 p.m.
“University RCMP had sufficient resources on hand to ensure the safety and security of both attendees and demonstrators. There were no reports to police of any injuries or damage to property,” wrote Constable Kevin Ray in a statement to The Ubyssey.
But the anonymous SAB member said that whatever violence occurred outside the building paled in comparison to what was being advocated for inside.
“I think the much more serious and much more worrisome violence is the violence that was being normalized and legitimized inside the building. This talk was clearly — and this group Students for Freedom Expression — is clearly engaged in trying to normalize and legitimize far-right neo-Nazi extremist violence, including race war and genocide,” they said.
“So if we're going to talk about violence, I think that violence needs to be discussed.”
The talk itself started late at 7:45 due to delays from the protests. The room where it was set to take place smelled of fecal matter, but Campus Security and SFE were not able to determine the source of the smell.
“I do not know the source, but someone either sprayed fart smell in the vents or there was actual, well, shit. They got the smell in through the vents,” said SFE President Raphael Menoni.
When The Ubyssey asked for comment, UBC would not confirm the smell, its source or whether it was cleaned in time for classes later in the week.
Despite the smell, the event proceeded as planned. Hecht and then Duchesne each spoke for about 30 minutes each, but the second half of the talk was dedicated to answering questions from the audience. Menoni, who moderated the event, gave priority to audience members who disagreed with Hecht and Duchesne.
Day asked how, as “illegitimate occupiers of this land,” the speakers can call for changes to immigration policy without consultation with Indigenous groups.
Another attendee, a UBC student, asked whether Canada has an “obligation” to accept refugees considering Canada and its allies have aided intervention efforts that contributed to the refugee crisis in Syria and other areas.
The audience reacted with hostility when fourth-year political science student Tuti Sundara questioned the speakers’ contributions to racist ideology.
“How do you make peace with contributing to white supremacy or at least sparking violence?” asked Sundara. “Because even if [audience members] do not agree with all of our ideas and values here, the consequence of this kind of hate speech, as people label, has quite a lot of consequences.”
One attendee called Sundara a “social justice warrior,” and SFE leader Nicholas Kosovic shouted to quiet the crowd, “No heckling, no!”
Despite the unwelcome reception to her question, Sundara felt the discussion was civil overall.
“Actually this is my first time attending one of [SFE’s] events and I was a little bit scared,” said Sundara. “I felt a little bit unsafe coming here, but I am quite surprised by the way they handle the discussion as they prioritize the disagreers …”
A transfer student from Queen's University, fourth year Eshan Cheema came to Sundara’s defense when Hecht said he didn’t understand her question. He added that he feels both sides need to avoid jumping to conclusions when talking to each other.
“If anything, I think it shows how we have to be careful when we have these conversations because, on both sides, people are just scared and so used to being attacked for expressing themselves. So they always jump to a place of being on the defence.”
But even though SFE put Duchesne and Hecht’s views up for debate, SAB doesn’t think it will change any minds in practice.
“This is systemic violence on a mass scale that's being promoted in this event, and that's why this event is being held in order to recruit and spread neo-Nazi propaganda at UBC,” said the SAB member.
Plans for the future
According to Kosovic, Campus Security asked after the event to set up a meeting with SFE and also the Provost’s office to discuss how to secure future events. When The Ubyssey asked for comment, UBC could neither confirm nor deny plans for such a meeting.
Despite the conflict, all parties felt they had accomplished their goals that night.
Menoni was grateful the event was able to take place, but hopes that in the future protesters will attend the talk to engage the speakers.
“This is a partial victory for free speech. We wanted to get the people out there in here talking to us, so we are not done,” said Menoni. “We will have more events, and we will keep insisting on people coming to our events, people that disagree.”
Duchesne echoed Menoni’s words.
“We didn’t expect … that there would be so much opposition outside, but in the end it was handled well,” said Duchesne. “It would be great if we could have this conversation across all Canadian universities because if we did, we could turn intellectually this thing around because right now the academics they have decided to shut down the whole debate. I invite it.”
Another SAB member who also asked to remain anonymous said SAB’s “intention was to disrupt a neo-Nazi event” and to that end they were “successful.”
“I feel tired, but I feel energized at the same time. The community response was incredible. The solidarity that was shown, the spirit and the energy was really incredible,” they said. “So I feel inspired and I feel motivated to continue and keep building community solidarity against the far-right.”
—with files from Bailey Martens
This article was updated to credit Nicholas Kosovic as the SFE leader who told the audience not to heckle and correct the spelling of Kosovic and Tuti Sundara's names.