The Exploitation of Children for Political Gain: A Look at Save Canada vs. Antifaux at York Mills Collegiate

Apr 16, 2023

Children are powerful tools to achieve political ends.

For as long as we can remember, political actors have used children to communicate a particular message, advance an agenda, or galvanize support from the public. When involving minors in political activism there is always an element of exploitation, but the spectrum ranges from relatively benign (politicians kissing babies) to abominable (kids used as human shields). The risk of harm is mitigated by the extent to which adults genuinely prioritize children’s interests or well-being.

Over the past few years, protests and counter protests have targeted children’s vaccination clinics, libraries, school boards, and schools. Photos of children wearing jerrycan knapsacks and holding hands in blockade formation have gone viral. During the Freedom Convoy/occupation, outdoor bouncy castles and play areas were set up in subzero temperatures. At the one-year anniversary, an infamous Ottawa activist admitted to Rebel News she brings her eight-year-old to volatile situations to deter violence while she agitates. In essence, her child becomes an unwitting shield during street clashes.

Extremists groom children to use them as props to create viral content, or to tug at heartstrings by invoking strong emotions, while upholding them as a rallying point for divisive political views. Such damaging behaviour is encouraged by institutions that benefit from sowing fear, anger, and division. Ultimately, it boils down to the reckless pursuit of power, whether in terms of money or influence or both.

But at what cost?

The Protest Circuit Arrives at York Mills Collegiate on International Day of Pink

On April 12, 2023, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and York Mills Collegiate celebrated International Day of Pink with an assembly that commemorated the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the birth of World Pride, pivotal turning points that paved the way towards gay rights and the gay liberation movement in the United States and Canada.

The event featured Martin Boyce, one of the few surviving witnesses of the Stonewall Riots, and a performance by champion Canadian drag queen Icesis Couture.

Toronto Star reports that the assembly was open to grades 7 to 12, but not compulsory. Parents were informed in advance of the day’s programming and could decide whether their children would attend. Along with a tight communications strategy in place to keep students safe, there was a police presence outside the school, as well as private security at the door.

Seventeen-year-old Save Canada organizer Josh Alexander found out about the event a day or so in advance, based on an inside tip from an aggrieved student. Just before midnight on April 10, he posted a call-out on Facebook: citing concerns about the school “openly endorsing a Stonewall rioter” and hosting a “special performance from a drag queen”, he invited supporters to “bring a level head and the good word of the gospel.”

Early the following morning, a self-described “antifascist independent researcher” shared marked up screenshots of Josh Alexander’s post to Twitter, characterizing the protest as harassment: “Josh must be soundly rejected. Loudly. Angrily.”

The call to action was heeded by both convoy and antifaux protest hobbyists.

The convoy side consisted of approximately 20 teenagers and adults, some instantly recognizable from the Ontario protest circuit. Key players had previously organized and attended mandate and drag-related protests in Ottawa, Peterborough, and beyond. Josh Alexander had the megaphone and sixteen-year-old Monty Walker carried the Save Canada flag. Chris Dacey was recording and livestreaming on two phones. Several regulars from the Toronto protest circuit were present, with Canadian Nationalist Party leader Gus Stefanis making an appearance. Right-wing online broadcasters covered the story, including Rebel News (David Menzies and the Hat, Lincoln Jay) and True North (Harrison Faulkner). A handful of content creators with smaller followings showed up for good measure.

Around half a dozen adults attended to oppose the protest, mostly Gen X and Boomers, with a few Millennials. They were almost all recognizable from other actions, including drag-related events in Hamilton, Peterborough, and Toronto. Gisela McKay from the Movement Defence Committee appeared to patrol and direct the others. Neven Peric and former (?) Proud Boy Josh Chernofsky took on enforcer roles vis-à-vis their adversaries. A nonbinary individual who goes by Zahra/Qaiser Ali/Wesley Williams (herein after referred to as Zahra) distracted cameras and diverted attention from the protesters to themselves. Catherine Crockett sat knitting under a tree, having chauffeured the group to York Mills.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network did not have any identifiable reporters on site, but at least one counter protester seems to have interviewed teenagers on the organization’s behalf before an article covering the event was published with no byline.

The first notable altercation of the day involved an as yet unidentified bearded antifaux agitator and white nationalist Gus Stefanis.

The height of tension came when Josh Chernofsky attempted to intimidate my cameraman from lawfully filming in public. This isn’t the first time Josh has threatened unprovoked violence: he previously threatened my cameraman with dog spray, and on a separate occasion ran after him while brandishing an umbrella.

At lunchtime, a couple hundred students poured out of the building.

Josh Alexander briefly addressed the crowd with his megaphone. He was interrupted by Zahra, who ran to grab a trans flag and then frantically clambered atop the same small planter. A few Save Canada supporters intervened to prevent Zahra from knocking over the teenager. Police stood by and watched impassively.

The commotion successfully prevented Chris Dacey and others from getting an unobstructed recording of Josh Alexander’s speech, but backfired overall. Clips of students loudly booing Zahra went viral, framed by right-wing media as youth rejecting the “trans agenda”, rather than kids taking affront to an adult’s unseemly behaviour.

Zahra continued behaving in antagonistic ways, including crashing interviews and group pictures. A few teenagers reacted to the perceived immaturity in kind, with ad hominem attacks and throwing cookies.

One clip of a student snatching Zahra’s flag garnered millions of views after it was shared by Chris Elston, aka Billboard Chris. In the immediate aftermath, an antifaux counter protester retrieved the flag and returned it to Zahra amid harsh boos and jeers.

Zahra’s efforts to bring attention to trans rights backfired to the tune of over two million views. By knocking Josh Alexander off the post where he stood speaking to an audience of same-age peers, Josh was rendered instantly sympathetic, while Zahra was perceived by many as frenzied and out of control.

Given that Save Canada’s objective was to go viral, the day was a spectacular failure for the antifaux– a failure that led to an unexpected victory for those whose message would have been ignored, rather than amplified through millions of views across social platforms and over a hundred thousand likes on one video on TikTok alone.

The fact that antifaux efforts actually helped a fledgling movement like Save Canada to go viral should underscore the importance of having an actual strategy rather than resorting to disjointed aggression and a threatening presence to suppress speech and advocate for a cause involving human rights– much less in the presence of minors.

That two antifaux protesters carried what appeared like concealed knives or weapons on their person on school grounds, in full view of students who noticed and called it out, did not help matters.

In fact, it was a bad day for props overall.

The majority of students were likely outside because it was lunch period on the first properly warm day of the year. They reacted to the travelling circus that landed in their school’s front yard in different ways.

Some were supportive of the protest, others were not. Some were confused about Save Canada’s messaging. Others expressed frustration about not being able to speak in earnest about gender issues without the risk of having labels affixed. Some took the entire thing as a joke. Others ignored it completely.

The lunch period ended without major incident.

Adults Can Do More Harm than Good

Lost in the threats of violence on display was the fact that kids are malleable, but are also growing and changing; if we are to reach and educate them effectively, we must extend grace and patience. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

On March 28, 2023, Josh Alexander attended an Ottawa Carleton District School Board meeting. He got assaulted by an antifaux protester who hurled a beverage at him, while others shouted obscenities. His continued involvement with Save Canada is plain evidence of the failure of threatening violence as a tool for deradicalizing youth or teaching them to have compassion for others.

There are legitimate questions to ask about who shows up where and for what purpose. At times, it can be hard to distinguish between youth-led advocacy and the manipulation of kids by adults. In this situation, Save Canada was tenuously connected to actual students, to the extent they were tipped off and perhaps invited to protest. Josh Alexander hit the road at midnight to travel overnight with his crew. Who are the adult players involved, and what is their agenda?

The counter protesters, on the other hand, were not representative of any student movement, and did not try to relate to anyone or persuade. This is perhaps unsurprising since the antifaux present were noticeably older than the youth in attendance, and Gisela McKay openly speaks about hating kids.

Why would someone who called the students “rotten little f*ckers” be there?

Who sent antifaux?

Nowadays, the old song has new meaning:

Clowns to the left of me
Jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

Lead photo by Yan Parisen

Caryma Sa'd

Caryma Sa'd takes a no holds barred approach in her razor-sharp commentary; nothing and nobody is immune from criticism.

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