September 20th, 2023, saw coordinated protests billed as the “1 Million March 4 Kids” take place at various school boards, city halls and other such locations across Canada and a bit of the U.S. They were spurred on by the Hands Off Our Kids organization. HOOK, under the guise of “protecting children” and their “rights,” and couching itself in the language of Liberal inclusiveness, seeks to eliminate what they have referred to as “LGBTQ+ ideology” from schools. This article does not exist to defend any government institution or politician: its purpose – like our presence at the counter-protests – is to defend queer existence and marginalized communities from the creeping tide of hate and opportunistic fascism. We are two Hamilton queers who put ourselves in the midst of the action in Guelph and in Hamilton, at different stages. We, Ripley and E.D., have set out here to provide our on-the-ground perspectives on the protesters, what took place in both cities, as well as on what comes next.
Ripley: I don’t have a long history of activism, but in the last few years my desire to become involved with my community and to act in solidarity with the struggles of others has grown, and I find myself taking part in more and more actions. I first heard about this particular plan for community defense through my connection to a recently formed queer collective that had initially made plans to focus its efforts in Guelph. However, as the date came closer, it became clear to us that Hamilton may be more in need of our numbers, and being a born and raised Hamiltonian myself, I decided to focus my efforts at home.
Though the messaging to the queer community and its allies had asked that people show up at the HWDSB building at 11 AM, I was asked through private channels if it would be possible to show up earlier, around 9 AM, with other trusted queers in an effort to take up space before Hands Off Our Kids (HOOK) arrived. The morning of the event, I was up early and picked up a few other trusted friends so we could make our way to the location. We didn’t have any direct contact to anyone organizing the action in Hamilton, and so the only information we had about where to meet was a post from Free Mom Hugs, directing community members to meet in a specific parking lot near the HWDSB building.
As we approached this meet up point in our vehicle, we could see that protestors affiliated with HOOK had already arrived and had begun to take up space at the intersection outside the building, waving Canadian flags and bearing signs with hateful propaganda on them. As we pulled up to the rendezvous point, a woman from Mom Hugs was waiting to give us an update. The protestors from HOOK had apparently arrived as early as 6 am, and due to concerns about being harassed on route to the location of the counter protest, a new meeting point had been designated closer by. I was at this point feeling apprehension, with plans shifting so much and almost no other community members on site to work with, I was feeling very exposed and uncertain. We got back in our vehicle and made our way to the new rendezvous point where another woman from Mom Hugs was waiting, and it became clear we were more or less the first people to arrive on the scene. We waited a bit longer to see if any more queers or allies might arrive to join us so we could start our counter protest, and in total there were less than a dozen of us as we first made our way over to set up. The bulk of the protestors from HOOK were gathered in front of the HWDSB building itself, but a small handful of them were protesting at the intersection of upper Wentworth and education court, just up the road. With only a handful of us, we felt safer posting up at the intersection as opposed to contending with the larger crowd. This, from my perspective, also had the benefit of being a more publicly visible place to stand and make our presence known.
As the morning progressed, more and more queers and allies began to arrive and my apprehension was, for the time, alleviated, as we at least temporarily outnumbered the HOOK protestors at the intersection. There were several dozen of us on scene when word began to spread that a large number of HOOK protestors had begun to congregate in the parking lot of Limeridge mall across the street. I could indeed see Canadian flags peeking up over rows of cars confirming their presence was growing. At first I heard some say there may be 75 to 100 of them. Then the estimate became a few hundred. I was told by someone in the crowd that the plan was to let them march past us to the HWDSB building where they would hopefully be less visible and less obstructive to our efforts. When they finally began marching out from the parking lot to make their way past us, it was clear that they outnumbered us many times over. I felt a wave of despair seeing those hundreds of people walk past, many of them families with young children. Their jeering remarks and chants had a demoralizing effect, and it seemed as though the procession of them was never going to end. At some point however, they did trickle off, and as police moved to close education court to traffic, our counter protest moved into the street to take up that space.
As we came together and began blasting our own music and chants, I looked at all my community members around me who had shown up that day to defend our existence and push back against the rising tide of hatred and intolerance. Though there was much to be upset about, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride and belonging, and with a second wind I moved up what was now the front of our line facing towards the school board where our side was pressing up against theirs. As they pulled back towards the building, we began taking ground and moving forwards. At one point I witnessed one of the HOOK protestors, an older white man, attempt to push through our ranks, grabbing at someone’s throat in the process. There was a flurry of action as he was pushed back, but thankfully our ranks held. We ended up marching all the way back to the school board on the tail of the HOOK protest, and held there for a while as we continued our chants, and held up our signs and flags. After a while, word came through that many of the HOOK people were moving back to the intersection, and that we were all going to try and move back there in unison. This was easier said than done however, as several pockets of folks from our side were locked in verbal engagements, or otherwise missed the message. As the bulk of our people began to move away, I could see those groups still lingering behind and made an effort to let them all know that it would be safest to move back together. It was clear to me that not everyone was going to do this however and, beginning to feel quite exposed again myself, I decided the best I could do was accompany those who were making their way back while keeping an eye on the situation behind me. As we regrouped at the intersection, I noted that even though our numbers had swelled and we were pushing at least a hundred people, we were still outnumbered, maybe as much as 3 to 1 from my perspective on the street. It was around this time that I connected with E.D., who had made it back to town from Guelph.
E.D.: Nine days before the protesters met counter-protesters, a friend reached out to me. She and someone who I would get to know had found that all of the usual organizers in Guelph who they knew were tapped out—willing to attend an action but not able to initiate one. It was known that the HDLC had Hamilton’s back almost from the start, but the OFL had not come out with official word on other areas yet. So, despite never organizing an honest-to-goodness action before, those two took it on themselves. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the idea of no one being present in Guelph? That neither sat right with those two, nor with me, nor with the others who quickly joined the effort. So, the first few days of planning were focused on putting together the bare minimum of a response. The idea was to pitch Guelph’s need for people, but to also support trusted people in our area preparing for any counter-protest anywhere, by sharing information and supplies with those not already involved directly with any of the groups already planning something. All the while, we kept searching for other groups in Guelph to team up with. That last part was the most important. We wound up with an estimated 850 in attendance, defending queer rights. I’m fairly sure that Guelph would not have had those numbers if it had simply been our collective’s efforts alone. Fortunately, an old friend of one of our members got in touch, and had contacts who they said were working on something similar. Frankly, I suspect this one person was doing a lot more than they let on, to pull associates together, and galvanize us. It worked. And then there was the confirmed union support.
Without giving away too much of what little I know, I must say that I was a little stunned at some of the support that the counter-protest in Guelph was received. Maybe that was naive and cynical of me. On the car ride, I badgered my friend some more about the involvement of people with ties to municipal government, among other things. Working alongside a union’s efforts, I can get with that fairly easily. But people with ties to city hall? The situation reminded me of wildlife that gets too comfortable around humans, and eventually pays a price. However, I cannot deny the benefits we reaped from having these people leveraging the resources of the establishment. It worked. This time.
We arrived at Guelph City Hall much earlier than we had told the general supporters to show up, having agreed with others involved to establish our presence there before the time we knew—through leaked info—the protesters were planning to be on the scene.
Counter-protesters steadily flowed in and quietly took up space. Within an hour or so, we were a crowd fit for the Jazz festival that had recently taken place on the same spot. Visible queers of all ages, supportive families and friends, people who just care. They all made small talk, milled around, and read the pro-2SLGBTQIA+ statement of support from the Kitchener-Waterloo Unity Mosque that we circulated. Problems with what you might call theatrical presentation are not uncommon for these sorts of events. Guelph had its own, and so I would like to take this space to advise everyone to do the following: check the quality of the speakers you are using ahead of time, have a couple of people who are good at crowd work in your ranks, plan out a playlist—and do not forget the aux cord! Shoutout to the comrade who ran to their car, grabbed an aux and lent it to the first-time demonstrator who volunteered theatre kid tech crew skills at a moment’s notice. The ultimate goal of a counter-protest is not to entertain your crowd, but that is one more way to care for each other and keep spirits high in the face of the haters. And there were haters. Most of the anti-queer Guelph protesters I saw were typical of what we have come to expect from the amateurish, riled up convoy-esq types, and the majority were white people, some signifying various faiths. There were a few savvy trouble-makers in the mix, like a guy with a go-pro and a curly moustache from 2011, and more serious types who may not have a problem with being called fascist. But the dogged work of our marshals and the sheer mass of our numbers kept the estimated 150 of them relegated to a dim corner of the City Hall courtyard until they set off for their arduous march along the sidewalks. I did notice among them some people who were what you might call average. They had a different temperament: not very radical, not very wild, but passionate. They had come as families, and I thought some of them almost looked uncertain and nervous at times. There were members of the Muslim community among that faction. I’ll pick up on what this said of Hamilton, shortly.
This is not all to say that Guelph was a breeze. There was a tactical error in having some of the entertainment from Transstar draw our crowd further from the ground we had claimed, leaving our marshals with little support when they were starting to really feel the drain. And yes, there was even a meek assault on one of the marshals not long after. But as I left for Hamilton with some associates around 11:00, Guelph seemed to be a softer affair than what we were preparing ourselves for. In retrospect, no matter how much we outnumbered the haters there—no matter how easy it is to roast some of the haters and their shoddy organizing—the fact is, the haters turned up. They will again. We cannot ignore what it means, and I cannot call Guelph a victory. All we did was stand our ground.
Ripley: What was different about Hamilton, when you arrived? Other than the difference in numbers and tone.
E.D.: Pretty soon after arriving, I was busy disentangling people from being drawn into arguments with protesters from HOOK. That had been an issue in Guelph too, but not as much of one.
R.: The people from HOOK were pretty keen to pull people into engagements in bad faith. It occurred to me that, especially with people who are inexperienced, it might not be as clear that having a conversation with the antagonizers is not necessarily supporting the stated goals of the action. A lot of people feel like they have to try to convince the other side, state their case, have a discussion or debate there in the street.
E.D.: I feel like a lot of times, there’s an underlying wish that they can change people’s minds through talking. They’re not used to the level of antagonism they are dealing with.
R.: Maybe. All the more reason to prepare people to focus on the goal of the action, which is simply to show the strength of the community and show that we’re not backing down. Having a discussion in the street – having a bad-faith argument – doesn’t contribute to that goal, and doesn’t need to happen.
E.D.: Another difference between the Guelph experience and Hamilton was that – it was different in Hamilton compared to most actions I’ve been to in the past! We’re used to the people who are absolutely red-in-the-face “true patriots”
R.: Waving their Canadian flags!
E.D.: Right! We’ve had them before. We’ve had literal Neo-Nazis screaming moistly in our faces. But that was not the crowd, up there on The Mountain on the 20th.
R.: That’s right. I noticed a lot of families. A lot of young children and teens. It was heartbreaking to see them holding these hateful signs and saying these hateful things. To know that these children are – through no fault of their own – growing up to be the bigots of tomorrow. I mean, at some point a person has to be responsible for their own beliefs but just to know that they are being raised in a space that is teaching them this hate. And it was hate, even if they say otherwise. There were plenty of signs that said things like “Gay is okay. Trans is okay. But stay away from my kids.” A lot of people there probably think they don’t hate queers, but they just can’t allow this “indoctrination” , this “ideology” to be taught in schools.
E.D.: At best, they pity us as adults. They view us as a mental illness, spread through influence. And that’s the schtick we’ve seen in the U.S. and around the world, really. “We’re not saying ‘no’ to you, we’re saying ‘no’ to your ideology.” So they want to stamp that out.
R.: They don’t believe we’re a naturally occurring phenomenon. And they want to eliminate queers from the future – one way or another.
A huge part of this is about control. So often, children are used as pawns by The Right – and many people who want to influence policy and culture! The idea that they are doing any of this to protect children is false. People at the core of these movements, I would say, know that it is false. Something I saw on a lot of signs was stuff like “you don’t control our children” or “our children are not yours.” The unstated part of that is the implication that someone does own and control these children – and it’s them. They objectify the children as their property. One of the approved slogans on the HOOK website is literally “I BELONG TO MY PARENTS”
E.D.: I would say that you will find that attitude toward kids across North American culture. It’s a common mentality no matter your political alignment.
R.: Yes! Children’s agency has been neglected and denied for so long. It really is another part of what we experienced that makes my stomach churn. Knowing that children are not truly being fought for. That their agency is being fought against, to prevent them from learning about what it means to be queer, preventing them from discovering that they may be queer themselves.
E.D.: That said, there’s something tricky here because one of the most eye-catching elements in Hamilton was the presence of a group of teens, I’d say between 14 and 17 years old.
R.: Oh yes… I saw them.
E.D.: Oh yeah. Very extreme, uh… “cool dudes.” With their cameras out, filming everything, filming us.
R.: Laughing, smiling, posturing.
E.D.: Posturing for sure, and treating this almost like a TikTok challenge. And I’m sure it was for TikTok! I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they all sit around and watch Andrew Tate videos. So, here they are, they’ve been indoctrinated into this antagonistic, macho way of thinking, and they are now exercising their degree of agency under that way of thinking to harass.
R.: Bullying, really. It was schoolyard tactics, and it was really demoralizing to see the youth so casually attack us, and laugh about it. This was a fun day for them, treating us like we’re not human beings.
E.D.: Yes, and things were getting bad. There were reports of tear gas from the cops – now that was untrue – but there were homemade smoke bombs, one apparently thrown by a child.
R.: At One point, several cups of water were thrown at us from across the protest. You could feel the wave of beleaguered energy from the counter-protesters as time went on. But we were still there, we stayed strong in the face of all these people shouting at us. Then we started to get word that it was time to leave. I remember seeing later online that police had issued an order that the streets be closed down and for people to disperse. Which, y’know, I’m hoping we weren’t taking orders from police. But I was definitely tired and ready to go home, regardless.
E.D.: I think strategically, it was time for us to get out of there. Again, en masse, we have to look out for each other – and there were people who didn’t know to leave in groups, who had to be wrangled. So, no matter what, our demonstration ended when the union-ish person with the megaphone who had been trying to direct efforts started calling for it.
R.: I and some others made our way to a friend’s place to come down from it all. It was a rough day for us but definitely not the worst I’ve ever been to.
E.D.: No! Not at all. As far as vibes go, I have been to much worse too.
R.: But for all the people that were at their first action, that was a lot to take in. Spending time decompressing helped take the edge off things, and I hope everyone got that opportunity.
E.D.: I think broader community aftercare is something we would do well to focus on, wherever it is possible. Even for people who were unable to attend something but have been worrying all afternoon… I think, with regard to coming down, this action has given me a lot more to think about than others, in a while, because we are in somewhat new ground here. Which is why we are writing this in the first place.
R.: And as we sat down to write this, we got word that there is something in the works for October 21st that we will need to respond to.
As we bring this article to a close, Wednesday increasingly serves as a stark reminder that while we need to keep showing up, we need proactivity too. Consider the queers looking to join. We can provide them with opportunities for education and information ahead of time. We don’t need to sway the more assimilationist ones over to our ways of anarchy (yet.) We just need to give them the basic tools they need to feel more confident in the middle of a hairy situation, and to make more savvy choices that keep them and us safe before, during and after the action. There are some people who are considering workshops, but it does not have to be even that formal.
We mentioned how we are seeing two marginalized groups framed as being against each other. Over the past several months, right wing media has worked on this framing. It’s not been done in secret. The National Post has run multiple opinion pieces clearly goading this on. This is not to condescend and say Muslims are being duped. People like Mahmoud Mura, one of the main forces behind Hands Off Our Kids, know what they believe and know what they are doing. While there are many who stand against us who are fueled by the most absurd, Facebook Meme’d disinformation, there are still people – from across demographics and denominations – who are informed about exactly what is being taught about gender and sexual health, and they don’t like it. It is, however, a matter of framing. The fear is that non-Muslim members of the queer community will fall for it, and allow prejudice to flourish. The narrative of a divide between the communities is a lie. There are queer practicing Muslims, queer people from Muslim families, there are Muslim and non-Muslims of Middle Eastern descent who align themselves with us. We need one another, in the face of this hatred.
Just the same, building (and re-building) bridges between activist communities in the territories designated as Hamilton, Guelph, Toronto and far beyond is a proactive step that will prepare us all for the trouble that the future undoubtedly holds. Taking time to build solidarity across the board in between actions, that is a path on the journey toward true victory. Just don’t forget to bring the aux cord!