Despite pressure from Jewish and anti-racist groups, as well as local politicians, a memorial service for a controversial Canadian lawyer that was held at a Toronto Public Library and attended by a number of neo-Nazi figures, went ahead as planned.
Barbara Kulaszka, a far-right free speech lawyer who defended the likes of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, died last month at age 64.
Word began circulating via social media that a memorial service in her honour would be held on July 12 at the Richview public library in Etobicoke and would be attended by some of Canada’s highest-profile neo-Nazis, including Marc Lemire, former president of the now-defunct white supremacist organization Heritage Front, and Paul Fromm, a white nationalist who is the founder of the Canadian Association for Free Expression, an organization that is “dedicated to free speech, immigration reform and restoring political sanity.”
A woman who spoke to The CJN on the condition of anonymity said there were about 15 people who attended the memorial and a small group of protesters representing “various activist groups.”
“The activist groups didn’t learn about the event early enough to organize well for it,” she said.
Vice News reporter Rachel Browne spoke to a man named Patrick, who heard about the event on Facebook and attended as an observer.
“(He) said he was ‘disgusted’ by the event – it was a bunch of ‘old people who were speaking German,’ ” Browne tweeted. “He said the event unfolded like a memorial service for the lawyer, but says he left because they started talking about Holocaust denial.”
The day before the memorial, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) appealed to its constituents to take “urgent action” and encouraged those who “agree with us that it is wrong for hate activists to use public libraries to promote their agenda, (to) join us in calling on the library to cancel this event.”
According to the statement, CIJA appealed to Toronto Mayor John Tory, Toronto Public Library and city councillors to cancel the event.
In a statement that Tory posted on his Twitter account in advance of the event, he said he reached out to the Toronto Public Library to ask staff there to cancel it.
“I was informed that the library has received legal advice that it cannot reject this room booking request,” he tweeted.
Toronto Councillor James Pasternak also called on the library to cancel the event.
‘Those tied to hate and bigotry have no place in our libraries’
“It is truly shocking that individuals who spread hatred, deny the Holocaust and have ties to neo-Nazi groups are being provided a permit by the Toronto Public Library to host an event inside a public building,” Pasternak said in a statement in advance of the event.
“Those tied to hate and bigotry have no place in our libraries.”
A statement from Toronto Public Library said that the concerns were considered from “a legal, library and public perspective,” and although hate speech is not tolerated, the library could not legally bar the group from booking space.
“This evening’s memorial event is an external third-party room booking and is not endorsed or sponsored by the library, and is not in violation of the law. However, should the group act in a manner that is not consistent with the law or our rules of conduct, please be assured that we will take immediate action.”
In a statement, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies president and CEO Avi Benlolo said, “the library’s policy is called into question for providing a space to individuals who promote hate, racism and anti-Semitism.”
Bernie Farber, former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO and current executive director of the Mosaic Institute, wrote in a Facebook post that the incident could set a bad precedent, because, “The sad outcome may very well be that Toronto libraries will become the new home for neo-Nazi meetings in this city.”
Sara Lefton, CIJA’s vice president of Greater Toronto, said that, “While we are disappointed it proceeded, we are grateful for the support we received – including from members of city council. CIJA will now be focused on working with our allies at city hall to review the policies and procedures that led to this unfortunate situation, and take steps to ensure it cannot happen again.”
Tory said he has asked the library board to review its policies.