Are hate groups using anti-mask rallies to spread their message?

A University of Alberta criminology professor is concerned anti-mask rallies, like the one seen in Edmonton over the weekend, are quickly becoming a cover to spread messages of hate.

That demonstration outside the Alberta legislature saw symbols that evoke racist beliefs on full display. 

Of the two rallies held Saturday, one claimed to be anti-racist, while the other had elements of anti-mask and lockdown opposition. 

Some demonstrators carried tiki torches, a symbol now commonly associated with racist beliefs.

Professor Temitope Oriola says he isn't surprised. 

"This is becoming a pattern," the U of A criminologist told CTV News Edmonton. "A pattern of citizens hiding under the guise of an anti-mask campaign, taking to the streets, bringing out symbols of hatred like tiki torches."

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, while citing that many who took part in the rally may not have been from our city, said he was appalled to see the burning torches.

"A tiki torch is not an official symbol of hate," he said. "But I think after what happened in Charlottesville in the United States, people see it for what it is."

4 OFFICERS ASSAULTED

One man was arrested briefly, and four officers were assaulted, resulting in minor injuries, according to Edmonton Police Association president Michael Elliott. 

"A couple times it got pretty dynamic and the members are trying to do the best they can to keep things deescalated," Elliott told CTV News Edmonton. 

“The morale amongst the membership -- I’ll say more specifically the front line... It’s just really low right now,” he said.

He said a contributing factor was a "feeling of not being supported from the Chief's office down." In a series of tweets on Sunday, EPS Chief Dale McFee said he had reached out to the four assaulted officers to see how they were. 

A huge thanks to @edmontonpolice & @AlbertaSheriffs officers for their professionalism and patience yesterday when dealing with a challenging situation. #shoutout #thankyou #goodjob (2/2)

— Chief Dale McFee (@DMMcFee) February 21, 2021

An EPS spokesperson would not say whether the weekly legislature rallies would be handled differently going forward, but that the incident and the protesters were still under investigation. 

"From our commanding officers’ perspective, rally participants exercised their rights of free speech peacefully," said EPS spokesperson Scott Pattison, noting there was only the one incident over five hours. 

Professor Temitope was unsurprised, calling it a "delicate balance."

The criminology professor says he doesn't want to see the protests shut down, but believes the public health orders need to be enforced in order to extinguish the thought behind demonstrators' symbols of hate.

"I worry that continuing to tolerate or even ignore the kinds of behaviours we are now seeing would only embolden those individuals because they would know there are no consequences." 

UCP GOVERNMENT FINALLY RESPONDS

Nearly 48 hours after the event, the premier issued a statement about the rally, condemning any symbols that were used in a hateful way. 

"I understand that publicity for this event incorporated an image apparently taken from the notorious 2017 Charlottesville torch rally, which was an explicitly white supremacist event," Jason Kenney wrote. 

"Prominent racists promoted Saturday’s protest at the Legislature, and individuals attended the event from known hate groups like the ‘Soldiers of Odin’ and ‘Urban Infidels’. I condemn these voices of bigotry in the strongest possible terms."

He continued: "There is no doubt that some people came just to register their opposition to public health measures, which is their democratic right. But these people also have a responsibility to disassociate themselves from the extremists who peddle hatred and division, and who played a role in this event.” 

CTV News Edmonton asked for a reaction from the premier's office two days earlier.

NDP and Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley -- who criticized on Saturday some of the symbols seen on the legislature grounds -- was quick to condemn the premier's statement. 

“While acknowledging certain elements of the racism at the rally, he omitted others and he proceeded to defend the majority of the rally’s attendees," Notley said. “Torch rallies have been associated with some of the most heinous displays of racism in history and Albertans deserve a Premier who is unequivocal in condemning hate and racism.”

Alberta's multiculturalism minister also spoke Monday about the rally when asked why her government had been silent over the weekend. 

"I find this question very disingenuous considering my own background and considering what I've actually had to put up with when it comes to white supremacy," the UCP's Leela Aheer told media that morning. Aheer is of East Asian descent on her father's side.

"If you didn't hear it, hear it now: It's not acceptable and it never will be."