The hostility of the COVID conspiracy movement is nothing new. Here’s how we got here, and how it may escalate tomorrow.
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Photo taken in Toronto on May 16, 2020. Source: Twitter
As an image of a sign being waved at a protest last week depicting Trudeau stepping into a gallows’ noose made the rounds on social media, there has been tacit acknowledgment that the conspiracism and incitement by the COVID denial, anti-health restriction, anti-vaccine protest movement might be getting more extreme.
Campaign stops provide a time and place for individuals and groups to show up and shout down political leaders. To call these attacks and rhetoric new, however, completely ignores the plight of businesses, individuals, and communities who have been targeted while trying to warn everyone else about the inevitable collective consequences.
This sudden attention has come with much theorizing about the source of these protests, with some on social media claiming they are paid or organized by an opposition party.
Touring protesters aren’t anything new in the far-right and racist right movement. Some influencers raise donation money to travel from city to city to take part, and often livestream, at various protest events.
There is not one individual, sole organization or funder behind this.
While high-profile figures and influencers do exist, they aren’t a cohesive body of activists with a central organizer. Coordination does happen, but only as information about campaign appearances is shared quickly and easily across potentially hundreds of small chat rooms, channels, pages, and group chats.
Using this loose online collective network, protest details can be quickly updated and disseminated to a very online following. In one Telegram group we monitor, over 700 messages were posted containing similar information in a span of 18 hours. This includes information on the prime minister’s itinerary, and even whether one government official is home -- which they know because they’re staking out his house.
Calls for violence against the prime minister are nothing new. A member of multiple anti-Muslim Facebook groups, in 2016 Lawrence Witko was interviewed by Maclean’s magazine for his numerous posts threatening Trudeau, often accusing him of being a secret Muslim.
In 2018, during the course of the Canadian Yellow Vest Movement, signs calling to “hang Trudeau,” and accusations of treason were commonplace. The same is true for calls to lay siege to the government.
The 2019 United We Roll convoy to Ottawa saw Christopher Hayes, previously convicted of uttering threats against Trudeau -- and a former member of hate groups such as World Coalition Against Islam and Soldiers of Odin -- participating as a driver, and ultimately, taking part in the Ottawa rally.
Far-right podcast host Adam Blainey took to his show’s forums and proudly admitted to being a white supremacist, made dozens of racist and homophobic comments, and went as far as to encourage white Canadians to attack Parliament.
“That was one bloke, we need an army. Stay weak and pathetic like a goy is what they expect,” Blainey said while discussing the 2014 shooting at Parliament Hill. “They revel in the fact that goyim are weak and pathetic and won’t stand up for their race. The bible is very clear that they will be destroyed in the end.
“Do something for fuck sakes.”
For years, numerous failed attempts have been made by the Canadian “patriot” movement to “storm the hill.” According to social media, numerous events were planned over 2019 and 2020 calling for people to rally and take Parliament Hill while protesting the “New World Order.” Many attendees of these events waved QAnon flags and imagery.
On May 13, 2020, a post to the Proud Canadian Deplorables Facebook group reads, “Canada Day 2020 we storm the Hill and begin the battle to [take back Canada].”
Referencing the same planned Canada Day event, a post to the Canadian Freedom Fighters Facebook group on June 1, 2020 states, “One month to go and before we storm the hill and watch all hell break loose.”
On July 2, 2020, a Canadian Ranger with an online presence suggesting a belief in QAnon and conspiratorial thought used his truck to smash through the gates of the governor general’s residence in a bid, it has been claimed, to reach the prime minister and deliver a letter.
Another conspiracy adherent made an attempt to “citizen arrest” Jagmeet Singh in the street. The next day a journalist, mistaken for another politician, faced a similar situation.
Their supposed crimes are only an ambiguous and ill-defined betrayal of Canada, couched in terms like “globalism,” “new world order,” and a litany of worldwide conspiracies.
While the image of Trudeau facing a hangman’s noose is disturbing, it is being flown by the same individuals who have targeted businesses, health officials, advocates, and communities throughout the course of the last 18 months. These protesters did not emerge out from under a rock for the election, and will not return to any dark corner as quickly. As election day and the two-year mark of the national response to COVID draws nearer, the sudden focus on the hostility of those disrupting Liberal campaign stops ignores those already on the frontlines of this battle.
Protesting politicians, especially the leader of the government, is the function of a healthy democracy and a right that should be preserved and protected diligently. However, the substance of these particular protests has little to do with any legitimate and fair criticism of Trudeau, his government, or its policies. Instead, there is the spread of disinformation about Trudeau’s involvement in an international pedophilic cabal of globalists led or funded by George Soros, Bill Gates, and more. This is a sign of a deeply misled fringe that nonetheless encompasses a worryingly large and increasingly agitated segment of the public.
When organizing began in 2016 against M103, a non-binding motion to condemn Islamophobia, the opposition draped itself in the language of liberty. Instead of a mild effort to condemn hatred, they made it out to be an assault on free speech and the drumbeat of encroaching Sharia tyranny. In fighting it, the movement deployed such transparent racist and intolerant tropes that, eventually, the anti-M103 organizing was seen for what it was -- the birth of a street-level hate movement in Canada.
When M103 passed, the language and protests took on a more anti-government tone. Without an issue to galvanize supporters, however, the crowds at protests began to erode.
The Yellow Vests movement, superficially embracing the same language and uniform of France’s Mouvement des gilets jaunes, was the next banner to rally around. It immediately became a home for the same anti-Muslim, hateful language and imagery observed during the M103 protests.
The Soldiers of Odin organized security around the very first YVC protests in Alberta. The owner of the now-defunct, over 100,000 member YVC Facebook group had connections to the white nationalist identitarian movement going back to 2015. Violent neo-Nazis were spotted at protests, and online.
Their inglorious convoy, inability to gin up the numbers to storm Parliament Hill, and inevitable infighting took their toll. They went into another slump. They had two more blips of activity: hateful responses to the Wetʼsuwetʼen and Black Lives Matter protests. Then came the pandemic, manna from heaven for the far right and the racist right.
The connecting points between the conspiracy-fueled and racist organizing around M103, the Yellow Vest Canada Movement, and the COVID conspiracy movement are a straight line. At every turn the far-right and racist right focus on new grievances and attract and recruit new audiences, drawing them into the core of the movement: conspiracy, anti-government sentiments, authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, anti-2SLGBTQ+ bigotry, antisemitism, fascism, and violent fantasies about their perceived enemies.
When The Man Comes To Town
Canada is facing two plausible threats, and one that is guaranteed, moving forward.
The first plausible threat is a sudden and violent escalation by the COVID conspiracy movement generally. Their rhetoric has consistently been violent, their more violent adherents have already attacked passersby, business owners, and others. Now, there is a more proximate target -- the election -- and a limited timeframe. What they’re doing isn’t new, but it is at a fever pitch and they have the media’s attention. A triggering incident -- like a video of one of their own being injured by campaign security or law enforcement -- could affirm their persecution complex and lead to a sudden and violent escalation that likely wouldn’t be felt only on the campaign trail, but would reverberate more widely.
The second plausible threat, though less likely than the first, is one of the conspiracists taking it upon themselves to make an attempt to hurt or kill Trudeau or another of their prominent, perceived enemies. There’s always big talk about murdering their political enemies, and some charges were laid for that sort of talk from individuals associated with the Yellow Vests Canada movement. The danger of the far-right (and COVID conspiracy) movement is that threats can emerge seemingly from nowhere. It just takes one person. The more people in a movement, the more extreme and violence-primed its adherents, the more likely there’s an attack.
The guaranteed threat moving forward is that the far-right and racist right is continuing to grow during the pandemic, and those new recruits won’t disappear after COVID. These are not only anti-vaccine protesters, just as they were not only oil and gas workers, or only those worried about free speech. It is a network of participatory actors, who share a narrative and worldview. Now, they’re primed to be re-activated for whatever issue will be the next lightning rod.