How the far-right’s big moment in Vancouver turned into a fiasco
‘So I’m lugging around this big suitcase. I’m by myself. It just wasn’t doable, right?’
By his account, Joey De Luca, president of the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, was “livid”.
He’d just spent an uncomfortable 15 hours on a bus, racing to get from Calgary to Vancouver in time for what was promising to be a big moment in his nascent career as a right-wing provocateur. With just an hour or so to spare on Saturday afternoon before his group’s anti-Islam rally at City Hall was scheduled to begin, he met downtown with Vancouver’s best-known far-right activist, Brad Salzberg, who was running logistics for the event and was also billed as a speaker.
Media attention was overwhelming across Canada, in the wake of the deadly confrontation between white-supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, just a week before. The Vancouver event was promising to put WCAI Canada and Salzberg’s anti-multicultural Cultural Action Party on the map.
Salzberg broke the news to De Luca. The rally was off.
With thousands of anti-racism counter-protesters already massed at City Hall, Salzberg said he was too frightened to proceed, according to De Luca, even with the planned protection of the Soldiers of Odin, a leather-vested group that says it conducts anti-crime street patrols but are known in Europe as anti-immigrant vigilantes.
The WCAI-CAP rally had turned into a debacle. “I just came down by myself,” said De Luca, a 33-year-old former resident of British Columbia with convictions for drug-trafficking and assault, who claims his group has 74,000 supporters worldwide. “By the time I got here the people that were organising the whole thing had pulled out and cancelled it on me,” he said in an interview on Monday.
“Brad says he talked to the police and they told him they couldn’t guarantee his safety so he got all freaked out and he called the Soldiers of Odin and said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. So they agreed with him and [by the time] I met up with Brad he’d already cancelled everything, he cancelled all our security, our sound system. It was gone. This was an hour before [the rally].
“So I’ve done this Greyhound ride all the way to Vancouver and by the time I get there it’s ‘oh no, we’re cancelling it’.”
De Luca’s deputy, Jesse Wielenga, vented afterwards on Facebook: “Soldiers of odin and brad got f***in scared and left joey and 8 of your boys to f***in hang…WHEN PEOPLE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE AT A RALLY THEN THEY SHOULD F***IN BE THERE.”
De Luca, abandoned by his allies, said turning up alone at City Hall was not an option, “not with 4,000 people that wanted my head”. With his refrigerator-sized frame and typical uniform of red WCAI shirt and “Make America Great Again” cap, he would have cut a distinctive presence.
“So I’m lugging around this big suitcase. I’m by myself. It just wasn’t doable, right?”
‘Racist needs a safe space’
Salzberg and De Luca were probably right to have been wary. By 2pm, City Hall and cordoned-off West 12th Avenue were enemy territory, heaving with the anti-racism crowd. Speakers including Mayor Gregor Robertson hailed diversity and tolerance and lambasted the anti-Islam activists. But where were they? The question rippled through the audience.
On the sunny south-side of City Hall, a carnival atmosphere prevailed, with music, face-painted children, and comedy placards (“Soldiers of Udon – Thor hungry!”). But it was on the north side of the building that a hardy few anti-Islam protesters – unaware that their leaders had bailed - were making their stand.
The SCMP counted about 15, sparse and distinctive. Like the counter-protesters – and contrary to their depiction as white supremacists – they were a relatively diverse bunch, including an aboriginal man in a leather vest arguing loudly against any form of immigration, and a young ethnically Chinese man carrying a Canadian flag who was pressing his case to anyone who would listen. There was also a white man in a white suit giving a Nazi salute.
A teenager dressed for the beach waved a hand-painted portrait of Pepe the Frog. A similarly youthful counter-protester, dressed in black and with braces on his teeth, tried to snatch it away.
“What are you doing?” asked beach boy, green paint still on his fingers.
“It’s a racist symbol!”
“No, it’s a frog. It’s a meme.”
That argument did no good and Pepe was seized, torn to bits, and stomped on. His owner gathered up the pieces and walked away. An elderly woman watching the confrontation tutted, before nudging her companion: “What’s a ‘meme’?”
A pattern was playing out. An anti-Islam protester would be confronted by one or two counter-protesters. The crowd’s ears would prick and a circle would swiftly form around the debaters. More would press in to hear, and the circle would constrict until the anti-Muslim protester was literally face-to-face with opponents. In several spots, police formed tight protective rings around individual protesters as they argued the anti-Muslim case.
One man in a wide hat and waving a Koran had six police surrounding him as he argued with his critics, who chanted “racist needs a safe space” and “f*** your hat”.
Twenty paces away, another ring formed around a man in a “Trump is my president” shirt, waving a placard with a complicated message about freedom of association. A small woman in a floppy hat got chest-to-chest with him, slapping a “Black Lives Matter” sign over his. “We’re gonna tell your mom, we’re gonna tell your mom,” chanted the crowd.
“There’s like 10 groups with one person,” whispered one cop to another in the ring around the man with the Koran.
Protesters from both sides were led away by police; an officer could be overheard telling an aggrieved man it was “for your own safety”. Another man was arrested with a knife, police later said.
Had De Luca or Salzberg actually turned up with a loudhailer, there is little chance they would have received a lengthy hearing.
Vancouver Rabbi Philip Bregman, who attended the anti-racism counter-protest, said strange times make for strange bedfellows.
For instance, Bregman - rabbi of Vancouver’s Temple Sholom from 1980 to 2013 and now executive director of the Jewish student organisation Hillel BC - said he was disappointed to be told of anti-police remarks among fellow counter protesters.
Similarly, many of those taking “the clearly Islamophobic” stance “would not necessarily be sitting down for tea and crumpets together in another setting”.
He spoke generally on Tuesday, declining to comment on Salzberg specifically.
But Salzberg is Jewish, a former member of Bregman’s Temple Sholom congregation, and the grandson of a Russian immigrant rabbi.
And WCAI has been accused of promoting neo-Nazism, which both De Luca and Wielenga strongly deny.
Yet the group’s @WcaiCanada Twitter account has hailed Hitler and sent white-supremacist messages in numerological codes that are well understood by Nazis. On July 31, the account tweeted simply “1488” - Nazi shorthand for the so-called 14 words and HH: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children. Heil Hitler.”
A day earlier, the account tweeted “14 words bitch”.
Manitoba-based Wielenga, who has run the Twitter account at various times, said the messages were posted by someone else. It was “unnerving” to be branded a Nazi, which he was not, he said.
But he acknowledged that Nazis have been members of the group, saying “they get through, right”.
And a belief in Nazism did not disqualify someone from membership of WCAI, Wielenga said. “If they like what we’re saying, we’re going to accept them…It doesn’t matter to me what [else] you believe in. I don’t care. As long as you believe in the fight against Islam, I don’t care.”
“We’re anti-Muslim immigration. We don’t care what your colour is…I’m not a Nazi. I have a lot of friends of different ethnicities.”
De Luca offered a somewhat different account, saying the “1488” and “14 words” messages and other “Nazi crap” had been posted by someone who deliberately wanted to make WCAI look bad. They had been expelled from the group, as would anyone who was “blatantly a Nazi”.
When told the numerological tweets were still undeleted, three weeks after being posted, De Luca said he would look into it. “I’ll go on there today and delete it myself. Personally I never use Twitter. I wouldn’t have the first idea about this stuff,” he said. The tweets were removed late Wednesday.
Salzberg said in an email exchange: “I do not support neo-Nazism in any form. My goal was to get the Cultural Action Party message out to the public. Nothing to do with neo-Nazism, which I do not support, nor do I adhere to white supremacist ideology.
“CAP is not about race it is about preserving 150 years of Canadian culture, identity and heritage which is now under threat by globalist forces.”
Asked how he felt, as a Jewish person, about allying himself with a group whose social media account had hailed Hitler, Salzberg said the question was “ridiculous”. “I am a Canadian patriot and I make decisions based upon that concept.”
A member of Salzberg’s family declined to comment on his activities.
‘This isn’t the end’
Rabbi Bregman said he had urged Hillel members to join the anti-racism protest. Any Jewish person who succumbed to “Islamophobia”, he said was “not understanding what Jewish tradition is about”.
“We know what it’s like to live in a land and be discriminated against. There is not a country in Europe that is under Christian domination that we were not, at some point, thrown out of.”
He added: “The Muslims are our cousins. We come from the same part of the world. Ishmael was Abraham’s first born. He was Isaac’s brother. Our history goes back thousands of years…Islamophobia is absolutely contradictory to who we are, and what we are, as Jewish Canadians, as Canadian Jews, as Jews in the world.”
But Salzberg is undeterred. And unlikely as it seems, he viewed Saturday’s events as a victory.
“Left-wing media” coverage of the counter-protest had greatly boosted CAP’s profile, he said in a Facebook posting, and “it is fair to conclude that a significant degree of progress toward our goals occurred as a result of the rally”.
Joey De Luca also wants Vancouver to know he’ll be back.
He said the WCAI-CAP rally suffered from “bad timing. They lumped us in with the Charlottesville thing”. If he has any regrets, it’s that Saturday’s event was not postponed, because no matter how much he insisted the rally had “nothing to do with white pride or any of that stuff”, the media wouldn’t believe him.
“But this isn’t the end. We’re gonna prepare better next time.”
The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70 .