A peaceful protest outside an event for Maxime Bernier turned violent Sunday evening as supporters of the People’s Party of Canada began to arrive and enter the venue.
A scuffle occurred in the crowd of around 100 about half an hour before the event — at Hamilton’s Mohawk College — was scheduled to start. Two men from opposing sides of the protests were led away in handcuffs by police.
There were a total of four arrests for “breach of the peace,” Hamilton police said, and all of those people were later released without conditions.
A large crowd of about 100 protesters decrying the event stood outside with signs advocating for immigrant rights and yelling chants denouncing those entering, comparing them to Nazis and neo-Nazis. Supporters of the People’s Party — some wearing “Make America Great Again” hats — stood behind police and engaged with some of the protesters verbally for about an hour.
Some protesters attempted to prevent people from entering the building and at one point blocked the path of an elderly woman who was using a walker, yelling at her and her companion.
Dusan Petroski, a member of the PPC who attended the event, said Bernier reminds him of dissidents against the communist regime that was in power in the former Yugoslavia, where he and his family emigrated from 20 years ago as political refugees.
Petroski said Bernier gave up “an opportunity to have a comfy life, be a minister in a future government and take a six-figure income for the rest of his life” to start his own party, come out with unpopular opinions and “represent an idea.”
When asked what part of the PPC’s platform he likes most, Petroski said: “the part about freedom, personal responsibility and respect — that’s the only way you can build a stable society.”
Sean Dowling, a protester who showed up to denounce the PPC and its supporters, said he did so to let the far right know that “hatred has no place in Hamilton, and here we celebrate acceptance, diversity, love and peace.”
Bernier talks ‘personal freedom’
When the event got underway inside, the People’s Party leader emerged on stage after Survivor’s Rocky III soundtrack song Eye of the Tiger played. He received multiple standing ovations throughout the night for pledging to increase “personal freedoms” for all Canadians.
He was joined onstage by American YouTuber and political commentator Dave Rubin and two PPC candidates. Bernier praised all of his candidates, saying “[they] are not real politicians … and that’s great. People don’t trust politicians anymore.”
The four chatted at length about preserving “freedom” from censorship in Canada, their doubts about climate change science, keeping government small and Bernier’s plan to repeal the Multiculturalism Act.
They also talked immigration, with Bernier saying the party’s plan is “not racist, not anti-immigration and not pro-mass-immigration.” The party would drastically reduce immigration to Canada, and focus resources on those citizens already in the country, he said.
When asked if he’d be willing to engage in a debate with protesters outside the venue, Rubin said “I’d be happy to talk to them if they’re not in my face and screaming at me and calling me a Nazi.”
“If I could sit down with any of those people and chat about it, I would try to do exactly what I did [on stage Sunday], which is really try to get them to understand what are your rights, where do your rights come from and how special it is to live in a place like Canada or the U.S.,” Rubin said.
Controversy for college
Bernier was at Mohawk College for an event to discuss free speech with Rubin. The college enlisted extra security for the event after word of possible protests spread.
Rubin tweeted earlier this week that the event had been cancelled due to “threats from Antifa,” or left-wing anti-fascist protesters, but later clarified the event was still going ahead as planned.
The college has been criticized for renting the space to Bernier and his party, with some citing Bernier’s statements about “extreme multiculturalism” as something that creates division among Canadians.
Jackson Gates, a paralegal student at the college, raised several concerns about the event in an email to Mohawk officials. Gates said Bernier has incited hate toward marginalized communities and that by hosting the forum the college was contradicting its own statements about being welcoming and inclusive.
“Profiting from the Maxime Bernier event and over the objections and concerns of your students and faculty is just wrong,” he wrote, adding he believes Mohawk should have told Rubin and Bernier to hold their event somewhere else.
College spokesperson Bill Steinburg told CBC News earlier this week that “the space that’s being used is space that’s rented to the public regularly and the party is a party that’s part of the federal political dialogue right now.”