Syncretism Is What Ties Movements Like The “Freedom Convoy” Together

The blockade and occupation protests have garnered support from a variety of sources within Canada. But how does a far-right movement made up of varying beliefs and prone to infighting sustain this size?

Collin Chepeka

Despite being openly organized by members of far-right conspiracy culture, the so-called “Freedom Convoy” has managed to garner wide support from a variety of places. What can be confusing is how an event organized by Canada’s far-right could attract support from people with sometimes confusing and contradictory backgrounds, such as Indigenous people, the spirituality community, the Christian community, and even some moderates. 

Many people have been surprised by a friend or family member who we did not expect to support and defend this occupation. 

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Movements like this are syncretic. Syncretism was a term coined by the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch who used it to describe the phenomenon of two warring groups joining forces in the face of a common enemy. Umberto Eco, an Italian scholar who survived the rise of fascism in his home country understood that fascist movements are syncretic. That is, they incorporate a wide variety of beliefs, sometimes contradictory ones, in order to focus energy, attention and action on a perceived “common enemy.” Historically, this is why Mussolini was able to gain support from both the working and ruling classes, Hitler from both monarchs and advocates of democracy. 

To best understand how syncretism works, it is important to recognize that movements like this are based on a cult of tradition. A feature of Fascist movements is often an appeal to how things used to be. In Nazi Germany, that was the time prior to the First World War, years prior to economic hardships imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Another example is Donald Trump’s popular slogan, “Make America Great Again.” 

In our current moment in Canada, it is, in part, an ideation of the past prior to COVID, masks, and vaccines. But more than that, there is a lingering anti-progressive sentiment reacting to the progress marginalized communities have made that has been stoked over the course of the pandemic.

This appeal to an older or more traditional way of living is motivated by the claims that the ideal past has been corrupted by progressive movements, whether that be from women, people of colour or other marginalized communities within society. This appeal to a mythic past is then combined with frustration at the current state of the world. 

In Germany, there was frustration at the limits imposed by the Versaille Treaty. Now, it is the limits imposed by a government dealing with a pandemic.  

Extremist groups appeal to what Hannah Arendt called the “masses.” The masses are an unorganized group of people who do not feel represented by the major political parties and, for the most part, do not generally engage with politics. However, in times of crisis, these “masses” can be activated by charismatic leaders towards a common goal. This group does not share any common beliefs, other than the feeling that they are political outsiders. This is why we see non-political communities being contaminated by ever-increasingly radical ideas, such as spirituality, crypto-currency, and “alternative health” communities. While not unique to the pandemic, the influence conspiracy culture has on these alternative communities is growing thanks to the pandemic.

Fascist and neo-fascist movements create a culture in which a combination of different forms of belief are combined. Each belief, despite sometimes conflicting with themselves, contains a piece of a shared “truth.” A good example of the conflicting beliefs being espoused is encapsulated by semi-disavowed convoy organizer Pat King. Pat has been incorrectly declaring himself as Indigenous, hosting a “sacred fire” and “peace pipe” ceremony during the occupation that was heavily condemned by Indigenous leaders in Canada. Prior to this, Pat espoused views about the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory and argued that people of colour were going to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race”. Despite Pat King’s widely known beliefs in white supremacy, he has used people of colour as tokens in order to try to demonstrate that this movement is supported by a wide range of people with a wide range of beliefs. What allows these views to be present is the shared belief that, despite his ugliness, Pat King is onto something. 

Another conflicting aspect is the presence of both armed extremists and children at the events. As events continue to unfold, it is becoming even more clear that far-right extremists play a large part in the convoy and its spin-off blockades in Coutts and Windsor. What allows these diverse groups of people to feel comfortable attending the same event is that they are syncretic, that is, work to actively incorporate a wide range of supporting from what appear to be different ends of a variety of spectrums. 

Conflicting worldviews are allowed to participate in a shared movement because they all reveal a piece of a hidden truth. These messages are often disguised as a science, giving an allure of authority and to deal with the unpredictability of world events. This is accomplished by appealing to a simple narrative of a past corrupted by an alien influence with direct action being the way to get back to how things used to be. 

This is why the convoy and blockade protesters have made good use of individuals they view as medical professionals to forward claims about the inefficacy of masks, vaccines, and mandates, as well as the harm that lockdowns impose. What unites the masses is solely the shared conviction that they aren’t represented by the current political system, and any belief that touches that nerve is seen as valid and welcome to the cause, despite potentially being counter to the movement’s goals. 

This is often why it can be difficult to have a reasonable discussion with people supporting movements with ties to extremism. While the organizers espouse radical ideas most wouldn’t agree with, the leaders of the movement tap into a shared emotion in the culture, typically dissatisfaction with the state of the world. This emotion is used to motivate people who disagree with the tenets of the extremist organizers to disavow their explicit radical and hateful ideas because, despite contradicting one’s belief system, the organizers seem to be speaking a certain kind of truth that is being hidden by the status quo. 

This movement did not start with the pandemic. The organizers, such as Tamara Lich and B.J. Dichter, have deep ties to extremist organizations such as the Yellow Vest and the Western Exit movement. This is their latest attempt to garner popular support by disguising this movement as a rejection of the pandemic status quo. 

The “status quo,” in this moment, is the litany of changes we have all incurred since the start of the pandemic two years ago. The truth this movement claims to be revealing is that the current federal government is corrupt and needs to be removed from power. In order to gain support for the overthrow of the government, this movement has tapped into a shared feeling of frustration in the culture with the way things are and are channelling those emotions towards their extremist goals.

Fatigue with COVID, the ever-changing vaccine requirements, and the mandates is understandable. However, these feelings are being co-opted by a conspiratorial extremist movement that is based on joining together a large coalition of individuals against a common cause – in this case, according to the Memorandum of Understanding (M.O.U.) that was posted to the Canada Unity website, the overthrow of a democratically elected government in favour of a “citizens council” who will lead the country. However, this is not what they want us to remember. This is indicative as they have since disavowed this memorandum, claiming that the M.O.U. “does not reflect the spirit and intent of the Freedom Convoy 2022 movement”.This movement, syncretic in nature, is being disguised as anti-mandate, anti-vaccine, and pro-working class, and is based on an extremist view of a future government. 

Expression of frustration in democracy is valid and necessary. We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be sucked into movements created by extremists for they will use your support to their advantage and then eliminate you once they have enough power to do so. What happens as a result of this syncretic movement is all of our civil liberties being threatened, as the Federal government chooses to invoke the nuclear option in the form of the Emergencies Measures Act rather than having prepared for the fact this movement is made up of radical belief systems, which they were informed of prior to the occupiers arrival. This is a cycle of extremism and extreme responses to it which only ends with the power of the government in the hands of a small, extreme group of individuals.

The views expressed in opinion pieces published by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network or its board.

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