Dan Collen is a researcher at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s Online Hate Research and Education Project.
Last Friday, Member of Parliament for York Centre Ya’ara Saks spoke on the house floor about antisemitic elements of the ongoing far-right convoys across Canada. Saks, a Jewish MP and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, mentioned not only the now-infamous Nazi flag photographed in the streets of Ottawa, but also a far more complicated, subtle, and overlooked form of antisemitism in the convoys: the slogan “Honk Honk.”
“How much vitriol do we have to see of Honk Honk, which is an acronym for Heil Hitler, do we need to see by these protesters on social media?” Saks asked the House during comments on the motion for confirmation of Canada’s declaration of emergency.
Saks faced horrific harassment for her statements, as was illustrated in the contents of several emails showcased in a Twitter thread. Emails attacked her for being Israeli-Canadian, referred to Jews as “maggots” and a “parasitic tribe,” called her misogynist slurs, and invoked the antisemitic trope of Jewish Bolshevikism.
Most of those posting “honk honk” are not aware it was previously coined by a movement of extremely online young neo-Nazis as a stand-in for “Heil Hitler.” Regardless, Saks’ speech brought to light what many of those familiar with the depths of online hate speech already know, that effective dog whistles are subtle enough that their existence as such can be debated or outright denied.
Supporters of the convoy are denying it has anything to do with neo-Nazism and, in their minds, it does not. The neo-Nazis, however, get to have a laugh at everyone’s expense because yet another one of their dog-whistles has gone mainstream.
“HH,” used as shorthand for Heil Hitler, is one of the simplest and most common endorsements of neo-Nazism and white supremacy. You’ll find it, or its numerical counterpart “88,” everywhere from bonehead tattoos to extreme-right memes on Telegram. Those are obvious and overt while “Honk Honk” is a dog whistle. Neo-Nazis can plausibly deny its meaning, and, because it’s seemingly innocuous and deniable, many convoy supporters have unknowingly adopted a neo-Nazi slogan.
4Chan post captioned “honk, honk” from February 28. Depicts an anime Nazi covering their ears under the text “Honk Honk = Heil Hitler.” Source: 4Plebs
“Honk Honk” has been used by white supremacists long before the convoys took off.
Before the convoys, using “Honk Honk” wasn’t related to vehicle horns, but clown horns. The phrase was a coded white supremacist message cited as an extension of “Clown World” memes, in which a clown-clad variant of Pepe the frog immortalized as “Honkler” would make racist remarks while espousing a hollow nihilism about the world around him. The memes spread through 4Chan, an epicentre of late-stage irony poisoning (the practice of masking hateful ideas and rhetoric in humour to spread the messaging while allowing for deniability). On 4Chan, hate speech is traditionally cloaked by enough absurdist humour that a cartoon neo-Nazi clown frog doesn’t seem out of place.
A post on 4Chan captioned “honk, honk” depicts Honkler grabbing the nose of the Happy Merchant, an antisemitic caricature of Jews popular in hateful internet memes. Source: 4Plebs
“Honk Honk” was not the only catchphrase of Honkler’s popular in “Clown World”-themed spaces (including the banned subreddit “frenworld”) to receive a new life in convoy memes. “The Honking Will Continue Until Morale Improves,” used as a belittling response to outsiders of the online movement, was revived following the spread of convoy memes featuring blaring truck horns. The variation “The Honking Will Continue Until Freedom Improves” was popularized by a far-right Canadian streamer early into Ottawa’s occupation. Posts referencing this direct repackaging of the Honkler meme are common on the official Canadian Convoy Telegram chat and throughout the channels supporting the occupation.
“If you are honk honking you are so close…” A post on a Canadian Neo-Nazi Telegram channel depicts the meme character Honkler turning into Adolf Hitler. Source: 4Plebs
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network noted that prior to the first convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, white nationalist Tyler Russell, leader of Canada's Groyper movement, proposed widespread use of the term with obvious, deliberate connotations to “Heil Hitler.” He posted to Telegram asking his followers to post “HH (Honk Honk) for our truckers.”
His fans obliged, with one posting “lmao just realized what it means.”
Tyler Russell encourages his followers to type HH. Replies to one post include a reference to 88, neo-Nazi shorthand for HH/heil Hitler. Source: Telegram
Russell’s clear push for Honk Honk demonstrates a common messaging strategy of the extreme right-wing: Attaching a hateful meaning to messaging that is not explicitly hateful. This can be done by either hijacking a seemingly innocent phrase, gesture or symbol. A more recognized example of this is that in 2017, alt-right trolls on 4Chan hijacked the “okay” hand gesture as a dog whistle for “White Power.”
In one instance of Russell encouraging his followers to type HH, he was obliged by American white nationalist Ryan Sanchez, aka Culture War Criminal. Sanchez has been ousted from the American convoy due to his connections to neo-Nazi groups like the Rise Above Movement.
Holocaust Appropriation And Denial
The footage of a Nazi flag waved in the streets of Ottawa, referenced in Sak’s speech on Friday, is distressing. Though displays of antisemitism are not uncommon, and in fact have occurred in three separate incidents at schools in Toronto District School Board in February alone, a giant flag waved at Parliament is harder to ignore.
The swastika flag we all saw on the news was not an anomaly. An interview with Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Cooper had already aired in which another swastika appeared in the background (Cooper condemned the iconography after seeing the footage).
Throughout the pandemic, comparisons between mandates in modern Canada and the policies of Nazi Germany have become an established norm of Covid conspiracy theory culture. In the summer of 2020, post after post in Canada’s largest anti-mask Facebook group compared mask mandates to laws enacted during the Holocaust. In this world, it’s the government and public health officials who are the Nazis. Celebrity anti-lockdown voices have made the comparison as well. Recently The Auschwitz Museum called South African Billionaire and anti-mandate advocate Elon Musk’s sharing a meme comparing Trudeau to Hitler “sad & disturbing [sic].”
Though comparisons between Canada and Nazi Germany and comparisons that anti-vaccine activists make between themselves and Holocaust victims are equal parts ridiculous and offensive, they are hardly surprising in an environment that repeatedly embraces Holocaust revisionism.
Indeed, one of the convoy’s key organizers (and at times its most vocal one), Pat King, has claimed in the past that six million Jews did not die in the Holocaust. King’s one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to speaking on behalf of the convoy has effectively put some distance between convoy enthusiasm and his public engagement with Holocaust denial, but make no mistake: His comments were well known and convoy founders still allowed him to represent the convoy.
Benjamin “B.J.” Ditcher, a Jewish organizer of the convoy, has made some bold and contradicting opinions on swastikas flown in his convoy. When asked about the Nazi flag, Ditcher told Canadian Jewish News: “People troll, do stupid things, whatever. Who cares?”
When the subject came up in a Twitter space hosted by white nationalist Lauren Southern, his tune was different. Press Progress reported that Ditcher alleged that the Nazi paraphernalia in question was a government conspiracy and a “false flag operation.”
Though King’s comments are disgusting and Ditcher’s confusing, organizers’ actions in Ottawa speak further volumes to the allowance of antisemitism in the movement. Specifically, the hosting of openly antisemitic speakers.
On the same day that the infamous Nazi flag was photographed in Ottawa, the convoy stage hosted a live, in-person speech from antisemitic sovereign citizen influencer Christopher James Pritchard. Just ten days prior, Pritchard stated on his program that what Hitler was “actually doing” in the Second World War was “destroying these Jesuit, Kosovit [sic], central bankers… these Jewish Satanists, as he would refer to them as.”
He also recently opened a separate live stream with a speech from Adolf Hitler.
On the second weekend of Ottawa’s occupation, Pritchard returned for a second speaking gig. Among the movement’s celebrities that he shared the stage with was Chris “Sky” Saccoccia, another figure with a history of Holocaust denial and peddler of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Sky has made allegations that gas chambers in extermination camps were not real, claiming that he has “been to the camps in Germany and seen the ‘chambers’ for myself.” Sky also alleged that “Zionists are the biggest pedophiles in the world.”
Pat King and Chris Sky have toured across Canada to speak at anti-vaccine rallies together.
A short walk from the stage were multiple signs with written links to Pritchard’s videos appearing alongside links to Infowars content and videos from streamer Stew Peters, who spoke last Friday at a political conference hosted by Nick Fuentes, the leader of the Groyper movement and a known Holocaust denier.
Between antisemitic dog whistles and outright Holocaust denial, the insiders of the Freedom Convoy have proven time and time again that brash antisemitism is permitted in the movement. Though the imagery of a Nazi German flag in the streets of our nation’s capital should strike the hearts of all Canadians as a horrifying display of evil, it should not catch us by surprise that the problem runs deeper.