Burning down racism

By Sarelle Azuelos

I had my first experience with anti-Semitism when I was 11. My synagogue, Agudas Israel, was hit with a Molotov cocktail in the middle of the night and over $130,000 worth of old books and foundation was destroyed. Many were brought from Israel and could never be replaced.

I grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan as part of the only Jewish family and really didn’t think it was a big deal. Despite Canada’s strong multiculturalism, rural prairie towns are mainly Caucasian and I matched the physical profile enough to fit in. Coming to Calgary I didn’t expect to encounter public racism. But I only lived here for a few months before I heard of the Aryan Guard– a Calgary-based neo-Nazi group.

Saturday’s Rally

This Saturday, the Aryan Guard’s roughly 40 members will march in a white-pride rally downtown. Calgary is also home to Anti-Racist Action and the group is gathering support from locals to come out to actively oppose the AG. A similar march took place last year when about 40 AG members were confronted by the Calgary branch of ARA and its almost 200 supporters.

ARA spokesperson Jason Devine is the go-to man for the group since he is one of the few members willing to make his affiliation public.

“There’s the fear of retribution or shame or guilt and you can definitely understand that coming from hate crimes,” said Devine.

Many activists wear masks at rallies to avoid being recognized. Guard members maintain a website with a list and photos of those they label “white traitors.”

Devine, whose photo is on the website numerous times, knows this better than most– his home was firebombed with his four children and wife inside in February 2008. No one was ever charged but Devine is sure the Aryans are responsible. At later rallies, AG members taunted him, asking if his home was warm enough for comfort.

Devine pointed to the majority of AG members who have been charged with violent crimes. Last summer, a Japanese visitor was attacked by a member of the white supremacist group outside a downtown bar. The 17-year-old male was convicted of assault with a weapon earlier this month.

On a Facebook event page for the march to celebrate their Aryan heritage the AG asked members not to bring Nazi paraphernalia. The page has since been taken down. However, while a similar call went out last year, it doesn’t stop members from showing up with “Kill Jews” tattooed on their shins.

Police and violence

On the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, members from the Calgary Police Service will escort the neo-Nazis from City Hall to the Harry Hayes building. Because the group has applied for a permit, the CPS aren’t able to step in unless the AG break any laws.

“Basically our goal is just to make life difficult,” said an ARA member who asked to go by Lev. “The ARA is composed of a lot of different viewpoints on the best ways to stop them, but the guiding principle is that something has to be done.”

Devine said CPS’ priority was to avoid confrontation. Last year they built a human fence between the groups to keep them separated.

ARA members consider their group to be an anarchist body calling for a classless society and as such they don’t make demands or restrictions on anyone who comes out to counter-protest.

“Every person has the right to choose the level of their own involvement,” said Lev.

Some have approached the group, asking them to take a purely non-violent approach, but Lev argues that people should be allowed to be confrontational as long as they don’t endanger other activists. They want to “put the fire out first,” saying that an unopposed racist group would stain the city.

However, they do support community involvement. They used the example of The Final Solution, an Edmonton-based racist group that gained popularity in the late ’90s. Edmonton businesses teamed up to ban teens wearing racist paraphernalia from rock shows. This proved useful as this cut off many of the young, new members from their peers. Quickly, being part of a scary and tough group didn’t matter as much if you couldn’t show it off.

Activism techniques

The Aryan Guard and other anti-Semitic, racist organizations have a strong history of recruiting youth and teens. Dr. David Lethbridge, former research director of the Canadian Bethune Institute for Anti-Fascist Studies said the groups often hang around schools giving out pamphlets and stickers. In July 2008, a suspected neo-Nazi was trying to recruit at Shaw Millennium skate park. ARA members showed up and a fight broke out.

Lethbridge explained that there are two major techniques for fighting against racists: activism like the ARA or legal battles like those put on by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the United States, founded in 1971. While many of their cases fight for equal rights for minorities and women, they also targeted prominent American racist groups, Southern Klans and White Aryan Resistance.

By 1990, WAR’s influence was essentially ended after they were ordered to pay $12.5 million in damages to the family of an Ethiopian victim. Unable to pay, the WAR’s assets were sold off and their influence came to an end.

Lethbridge pointed to Canadian Richard Warman as an example of using legal strategies north of the 49th. Warman has approached the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over a dozen times and is always successful. Earlier this month he won a complaint against the now bankrupt leader of the defunct Northern Alliance, a white nationalist group based in Ontario. Warman is a former employee of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and brought more cases before the tribunal than any other Canadian.

Lethbridge said legal battles like this are successful, but not his favourite method to combat the extremist groups.

“What it doesn’t do is arm the people with knowledge,” he said.

In his past participation with the Salmon Arm Coalition Against Racism, Lethbridge tracked racist organizations and gave public seminars about their recruiting methods. He explained that groups like the Aryan Guard don’t approach people with a full agenda, but instead promise companionship. The assurance of a tough group of friends won’t seem as gratifying once the overt racism that comes with it is pointed out.

Devine explained that the ARA holds workshops to educate people about racism in Calgary, but they are sparsely attended.

“What we focus on is speaking with people at work, home, school,” said Devine. “Discussing with people what the issues are– leafleting, pamphleting, showing our support for different groups.”

A quick history of economics and racism

Activists across Canada continue to struggle against racist groups, but compared to numbers in the late ’80s and ’90s, the racist groups are at a weak point. Lethbridge warned, however, that their popularity could rise again given the current economic climate.

“I’ve been really concerned over the last six months,” he said. “When times get bad financially, economically, people look around for others to blame. The enemy is not their neighbour, but the capitalist system itself. It is my general feeling that the economic recession will result in unfortunate but fruitful grounds for far-right and neo-Nazi recruitment and activity.”

Traditionally, economic recessions have lead to peaks in racist activity. The Great Depression in the ’30s resulted in restrictive immigration laws and wide-spread anti-Semitism. After extensive job losses in the ’80s, North American racist groups started to shave their heads like the anti-racist skinhead punks in Britain. By using the image of the popular skinheads, but twisting their ideology, racists were able to gain support from the general populace.

Lethbridge said that racism does seem to be more prevalent in western Canada compared to eastern provinces. He suggested a strong history of political conservatism and the relative absence of visible minorities as sources of the issue. According to the 2001 Canadian census, Alberta and B.C. have about seven million visible minorities, while Ontario and Quebec have over 18 million.

On most weekends, my family would drive two hours to the Saskatoon synagogue for services.

On one such Saturday, the morning of our day of rest, Shabbat, we got a call from some family friends explaining what had happened. Yet congregation members had decided to carry on with the planned service despite the Molotov cocktail. Community members huddled together in pews with blankets because the furnace was turned off. The windows had been kept open to let the smoke from the night before escape and early April in Saskatoon is not a pleasant time of year.

It’s not hard for strong communities to join together to show racists like Calgary’s Aryan Guard that they are not welcome. The synagogue in Saskatoon united and started up a wildly successful fundraiser to replace the destroyed library. It re-opened a year later after support poured in from all types of communities.

Calgary could easily overwhelm this small group before it even has the chance to grow. To get involved with the ARA or to show your support for an inclusive Calgary, come to the rally Saturday at City Hall or visit aracalgary.com.

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