Safa Chebbi is hopeful.
Despite what she describes as a rise in hate-filled and racist rhetoric in Quebec, the community organiser says conscientious, anti-racist voices will drown out far-right groups in the Canadian province.
“There’s a segment of the population that is conscious of the gravity of the situation,” Chebbi told Al Jazeera.
On Sunday afternoon, a “Large Demonstration Against Hate and Racism”, will wind through parts of downtown Montreal, Quebec’s largest city.
More than 160 community organisations across Quebec have signed on in support of the rally, which organisers say also aims to denounce the rise of far-right groups in the French-speaking province.
“They are increasingly in the streets and really normalising intolerance in the public space,” Chebbi, a spokesperson for the march, said.
Several far-right groups operate in the province, including Canada’s first branch of the European anti-immigration group PEGIDA.
“They have succeeded in really legitimising their existence, even though it’s based on hatred,” Chebbi said.
That’s why it’s critical for Quebecers opposed to racism to have their voices heard, she said.
|More than 160 community organisations are supporting Sunday’s march [Courtesy of Ion Etxebarria/Large Demonstration Against Hate and Racism]|
Signatories in support of the demonstration include the Quebec Women’s Federation, the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), university student unions, and a range of local community groups.
Demonstrators from cities across Quebec, including Sherbrooke, Gatineau, Drummondville and Quebec City, will also be bussed into Montreal to take part in Sunday’s rally, Chebbi said.
“The fight is not going to end today. We will continue,” she said.
The march also aims to counter a “toxic climate” in Quebec that organisers say has been brewing for years.
In 2013, a Quebec government led by the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois party tabled legislation to adopt what became known as a Quebec Charter of Values.
The bill, which was never voted into law, sought to outlaw all religious symbols in the public sector, including teachers, doctors and day-care workers.
Muslim women who wear headscarves, Jewish men who wear yarmulkes, and Sikh men who wear turbans, would have been affected.
The legislation followed a long-standing and often heated debate in the province over what is known as “reasonable accommodation”, or how best to integrate new immigrants into Quebec society.
In recent months, the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers at the Canada-US border has re-ignited those feelings of anger among segments of the Quebec population, which believe the government is giving too much to new immigrants at their expense.
Far-right groups have formed and support for their anti-immigration and often anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to be growing.
Storm Alliance, a far-right group in the province that says it wants to “preserve and protect Canadian values”, recently organised anti-immigration protests at the border.
According to local media, the group said they were protesting “in the face of the scourge of illegal immigration”.
A similar protest was organised in Quebec City by La Meute (which can be loosely translated as “The Wolfpack”), one of the most vocal far-right groups in Quebec.
The group’s spokesman recently objected to being labelled “racist”, telling Radio-Canada: “La Meute is a citizens group for political pressure, so we don’t attack people.”
He added that the group doesn’t want to “intimidate people. We’re attacking political positions and decisions taken by politicians.”
But many rights groups disagree and anti-racist protesters largely outnumbered the far-right members at both protests.
Chedly Belkhodja, principal of the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montreal, told Al Jazeera that while these groups have always been around, they have recently gained visibility.
The groups have reacted to immigrants coming across the border from the US, Belkhodja said, “but [there is] also a general sense that for some, Quebec is maybe welcoming too many immigrants and too many Muslims”.
Debates are often polarised in Quebec, Belkhodja said, and understanding the province’s history is key to understanding the far-right movements today.
The Catholic Church also wielded tremendous power in Quebec until the 1960s, when a “Quiet Revolution” pushed for the government to take control back from the church in key areas, including healthcare and education.
For decades, Quebec’s francophone majority was also blocked from holding positions of power in major industries across the province. The positions instead went to Anglophones, who were a minority, and long-standing social anxieties persist.
“This whole story is the narrative in the [background], and it is used by some groups to say, ‘Oh we have to be careful and vigilant against losing our achievements,'” Belkhodja said.
“It’s the Trump effect,” he said, referring to US President Donald Trump.
“It’s everywhere, this notion of social anxiety. A society that is more reacting on anxiety is not always rational.”
Opposition to Bill 62
Against this backdrop, Quebec’s current Liberal government passed a bill last month that obliges people to give and receive public services with their faces uncovered, including on public transit and in hospitals and schools.
While the government justified Bill 62 as a necessary measure to protect “secularism” in Quebec, it has been condemned as an affront to the rights of Muslim women who wear a full-face veil.
A constitutional challenge to the law was filed in a Quebec court last week.
The legislation comes less than a year after six Muslim men were shot and killed as they prayed at a mosque in Quebec City, the provincial capital. The deadly attack was condemned as an “act of terrorism” targeting Muslims.
The suspected gunman, Alexandre Bissonnette, was known for harassing local, pro-immigration activists online. He also reportedly espoused support for French politician Marine Le Pen and other far-right leaders on social media.
The Liberals also recently cancelled a commission to investigate systemic racism in Quebec, after opposition parties and popular media condemned the probe as an exercise that would put Quebec on trial and paint all Quebecers as racist.
Instead, the government is organising a one-day forum in December on immigrant unemployment.
‘Not the Quebec we want’
Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of AMAL-Quebec, a group that works on issues of secularism and citizenship and is among the march’s signatories, said Bill 62 and the cancellation of the systemic racism consultations have created an “unhealthy” climate.
“That’s not the Quebec we want,” Bouazzi told Al Jazeera.
He said the march sends the message that Quebecers are able and want to talk about racism, discrimination and how to build a more equal society.
“We think it’s very important to stop saying that Quebecers are not able to confront one of their societal demons, which is racism,” he said.
Bouazzi added that if the government wants to have a sincere dialogue with racialised minorities about their needs, the focus should not be on “pieces of fabric”, like Bill 62, “but it’s the fight against discrimination”.
“We spent 10 years with debates about minorities and not with minorities,” he said.
“It’s important to re-centre the debate where it should be, which is around how we’re all going to be equal.”