Vancouver’s Hellenic Community has been targeted in recent weeks after the Free Speech Club rented the facility to host its latest event.
Started at UBC in the fall of 2016, the club, according to its website, aims to host “the most important and intellectually stimulating events in the world. Our mission is to provide a platform to the great thinkers of our time, and inspire people in our culture to protect, sustain, and promote free speech.”
The club was in the media last October when the event it hosted with controversial American right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro was met with criticism and protests. The club is now hosting an event this Friday at the Hellenic Community of Vancouver featuring Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern.
Molyneux is the founder and host of the Freedom Radio podcast and YouTube channel, which features videos with titles such as “The Death of Europe – European Migrant Crisis,” “Migratory Patterns of Predatory Immigrants” and “The Female Evil.”
Southern is described as a Canadian journalist, political activist, documentary filmmaker and author of the book Barbarians: How Baby Boomers, Immigrants, and Islam Screwed My Generation. Southern also has a YouTube channel featuring videos with titles such as “Asking Feminists: Women’s Rights or Islam” and “Why I Hate Pride Parades.”
The event has prompted criticism from some who say the views expressed by Molyneux and Southern are racist and promote white supremacy and gender inequality. The club says that it brings in speakers based on demand from its membership and strives to promote “a diversity of ideas.”
“We also alternate between right-wing and left-wing speakers. Just a short while ago, we hosted Indigenous rights speakers who were left on the political spectrum,” club director Angelo Isidorou said in an email. “Now we are hosting two speakers who are very prominently right on the political spectrum. This is the pattern that we strive to follow.”
The event was originally slated to take place at the UBC Chan Centre, but was moved, Isidorou said, because of security costs. He said the cost for security for the event was too much this time around — the club had hosted Shapiro at the centre last fall — because the ticket price for Molyneux and Southern is lower.
There was an online petition asking the university to cancel the event circulating in February that garnered more than 450 signatures in a few days. And after the change of venue was announced at the end of February, the Hellenic centre started receiving negative messages and threats, mostly through social media, from people unhappy that the event is taking place there and urging the centre to cancel it.
“We have been on the receiving end of a considerable amount of unwarranted grief,” said Hellenic Centre of Vancouver president Demetri Zambus. “We are not hosting the event, we are not promoting the event, we are not endorsing the event. We are merely a public venue where any legitimate group can rent space and do whatever business or speaking or other event that they wish to do so.”
Zambus said the centre has made a commitment to make the space available to anyone.
“We don’t want to enter that slippery slope of having to vet who, what, where or why,” he said. “If they’re a registered terrorist group, yes, there’s an avenue to where we could deny access to our space but barring that, we are not in a position to do that, nor do we want to.”
Zambus added that ethnic and political groups of all stripes have used the centre to host events over the years.
“We’ve had Chinese events, Hindu events, Greek, Italian, Portuguese. You name it, they’ve been through our centre. We’ve had political parties having meetings, gatherings, election night result celebrations of every flavour of the political spectrum. They’ve all been here, they’ve all had an equal opportunity to do so.”
At least three groups are planning on protesting Friday’s event — Students Against Bigotry, and the Vancouver chapters of Revolutionary Student Movement and Revolutionary Communists.
“We think it’s really important to show solidarity with our friends and our allies in communities in the Vancouver area and not stand for this kind of hateful rhetoric anywhere because no matter where it is it’s affecting students and it’s affecting our families and friends and communities so it’s important for us to stand together against this sort of thing wherever it might be taking place,” said Jonathan, a member of Students Against Bigotry, who would not give his last name, saying he feared being harassed by far-right supporters.
Vancouver police media relations officer Sgt. Jason Robillard said the department is aware of the event and officers will be on site Friday to “encourage peaceful behaviour.”
“We will have a visible presence and will be focused on keeping the peace, and providing a safe environment for all attending the event,” he said in an email.
“We do have a process in place where we assess intelligence and plan for events such as this Friday,” Robillard said. “We deal with hundreds of rallies, public events and protests a year, where we carefully weigh the needs of our citizen’s rights for free speech with the need for public safety.
“While there may be tensions at this event we trust that people will maintain the peace.”