From the moment a protester grabbed a counter-protester’s megaphone and hurled it into the fountain of the Markham Civic Centre, Saturday’s demonstration against illegal border crossings and their effect on suburban Toronto degenerated quickly into violence and anger.
Police arrived to separate men who had thrown a few punches, and others who seemed about to, including one man who was pushing another as he held up a sign reading “Not In My Back Yard,” according to video captured by Ming Pao Daily News.
It was a small rally of a few dozen mainly Chinese-Canadian protesters in Markham, a city northeast of Toronto, and hundreds of kilometres from any land border with the United States. Nevertheless, as the demonstration was met by a smaller group of pro-refugee protesters, it became a flashpoint in the North American refugee crisis, with Markham’s mayor, Frank Scarpitti, as the unlikely main target.
At issue was a rumour that Markham was about to agree to house as many as 5,000 asylum seekers in unused buildings, after Toronto asked for help accommodating an overflow.
“Say NO to Mayor Frank!” read several signs in identical red lettering. Others played off the recent shooting rampage in Toronto: “Do Not Let Tragedy Happen In Markham.”
“MARKHAM SAY NO TO ILLEGAL BORDER CROSSERS,” another read. “ILLEGAL FREE RIDER NOT INVITED.”
Many of the opposing, pro-refugee signs were branded with the logo of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
A woman spoke to the crowd in Mandarin, rhetorically addressing the government as she described the question of Canada’s response to asylum seekers as one primarily of public safety.
“It should not be this way,” she said, seemingly on the verge of angry tears. “You (the government) have to make sure that we’re safe.”
It was an illustration of the truism that all politics is local, and that even global crises can become ballot questions in municipal council races.
The day before, the nomination period had closed on the mayoral election in Markham, in which the incumbent Scarpitti is being challenged by four candidates who signed up at the last minute.
One of those challengers, Steven Chen, a real estate agent, said in an interview he was not at the protest and knew nothing about it until he saw the news.
“Everything illegal, that’s a problem. Not just refugees,” he said in an interview.
There is no plan to house refugees in Markham, according to the mayor’s office.
Scarpitti said in a statement that he and other Ontario mayors recently discussed the acute temporary housing shortage in Toronto caused by the increase in asylum seekers crossing from the United States. Toronto had asked for help with that problem, as well as others such as connecting people with potential employers.
“Mayors from across the province offered their support including examining existing capacity within their shelter systems, potential temporary housing sites and facilitating opportunities for seasonal and full-time employment,” the statement read. “Nothing has been finalized as options are very limited regarding any Markham locations being used for temporary housing and there is no update at this time. It is important to note that the majority of asylum seekers are well educated, employable and have found permanent accommodations within 90 days. There would be no cost to the Markham taxpayer. All costs would be the responsibility of the City of Toronto and other levels of government.”
Scarpitti also sounded a note of frustration that this issue, over which he has limited influence, is being used to criticize him.
“It is the federal government’s responsibility to evaluate and determine who is granted permission to stay taking into account Canada’s laws and international agreements. Our possible involvement in this issue is only to address the urgent request for help from the City of Toronto on their critical shortage of shelter capacity.”
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