It’s tempting to describe the rise of anti-immigrant paranoia and racist rhetoric in Canada as a toxin poisoning our politics. A current of electricity might be a better metaphor. As it surges, some political players try to finesse some of its power without getting burnt, while others plug straight in to fear and hate, sucking all the voltage they can.
Consider this article, then, a diagram tracing the flow of dark energy in Canada’s body politic. Within this circuitry, not all human components share identical behaviour or beliefs. But all have proven themselves susceptible to the jolt provided by populist bigotry.
Two leaders of federal parties vying in the fall election, for example, have attempted to insulate themselves with public statements that fail to match their actions. Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer denounced this April anybody who “promotes white nationalism, promotes any type of extremism.” He did so, however, after speaking at events with white nationalists and pushing an anti-immigrant motion that furthers their cause.
People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier declared that “racists are not welcome in this party.” Meanwhile, he’s criticized “extreme multiculturalism” and tweets other xenophobic statements that makes far-right extremists eager to sign up.
Many media reports assume hate-tinged populism is an offshoot of a grassroots movement angry about job losses and “politically correct” elites. If unwelcome racists find common cause with that movement, it’s unfortunate, goes the narrative, and politicians understandably sometimes react belatedly or clumsily.
Indeed, the Yellow Vests movement portrayed itself as a populist revolt led by laid-off Albertans while attracting people who stockpile weapons and draw firearms on police. And the United We Roll convoy organized by Glen Carritt this February brought frustrated oil workers and members of anti-Muslim hate groups like Northern Guard to the front lawns of Parliament.
Many of the nearly dozen experts The Tyee interviewed for this piece argue that in fact the opposite is likely true: the rhetoric and actions of prominent conservative politicians and media members are helping to create and embolden such a movement by inflaming racial and cultural resentments.
So who belongs on this hazardous grid and how does each tap in to its power? What follows is a non-exhaustive survey.
Scheer is in a delicate position. He is constantly taking steps to avoid being labelled a racist by Canada’s political and media establishment, while also stoking fear and resentment of newcomers. This can require presenting different faces to the public in different settings.
There is aspiring statesman Scheer, speaking with solemn gravitas earlier this month about the threat that white nationalism poses to Canada, the lives lost in acts of terror “because of people who subscribe to those views.” There is indignant Scheer, telling a crowd at the right-wing Manning Centre that accusations he panders to hate groups “are completely baseless.”
Then there is fear-mongering Scheer, introducing a motion last December opposing Canada’s participation in the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, falsely claiming that the non-binding agreement could “open the door to foreign bureaucrats telling Canada how to manage our borders.” (This, several months after the Conservatives pulled an attack ad showing a black man crossing into Canada.)
And there is plausible deniability Scheer, telling a demonstration on Parliament Hill organized to oppose the UN Compact, and also to support new oil pipelines, that “we are standing with you,” an event addressed at one point by white nationalist sympathizer Faith Goldy. Scheer claimed, “I was there to support energy sector workers.”
The federal Conservative leader, who has a decent shot of becoming Prime Minister this October, has been calibrating his various selves for years. After the Rebel was widely denounced in 2017 for its sympathetic coverage of the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, Scheer said he’d no longer be granting it interviews.
“[Scheer] has all sorts of connections with the Rebel and the far right,” Jeet Heer, a Canada-based senior editor at the New Republic, told The Tyee. “He kind of has this balancing act of trying to throw enough red meat to keep that faction alive, but not be totally associated with it.”
Bernier never got over losing the 2017 Conservative leadership contest to Scheer by only two percentage points. He wrote a book called Doing Politics Differently: My Vision for Canada, and in 2018 published a chapter online accusing Scheer of winning with the support of “fake conservatives” — a move that got Bernier removed as Conservative innovation critic.
Shortly after, Bernier began tweeting about Justin Trudeau’s supposed “extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity,” likened immigration to “a policy of social engineering for ideological and electoral purposes,” officially quit the Conservatives and formed his own political party, which is now set up in 338 riding associations across the country.
Bernier’s hard-right turn seemed to come out of nowhere, as up until this point he was mostly known for his libertarian outlook on supply-side management in the dairy industry. But it caught the attention of a white nationalist podcast called the Ensign Hour, whose host said “this is a huge step forward,” and urged listeners to infiltrate the People’s Party, a strategy other hate-spreaders have adopted.
Bernier positions himself as an insurgent against the Conservative establishment, staking out extreme positions on immigration that shift political discourse to the right, as when Bernier claimed last November, well before Scheer weighed in on the topic, that Canadians are “losing control of their borders” with the UN Migration Pact.
Bernier’s comments in turn came after European hate groups and far-right leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban had already rebranded the pact, taking a dry bureaucratic document with no means of enforcement that few people paid attention to and making it into a rallying cry against newcomers.
“It wasn’t like a grassroots thing to import that type of rhetoric into Canada,” said Craig Damian Smith, associate director of the Global Migration Lab at the University of Toronto. “It was led by politicians.”
The newly elected United Conservative premier officially professes zero tolerance for far-right extremists, saying “hate and bigotry has no place in Alberta.” But somehow haters and bigots helped swell his party’s ranks and candidates kept getting caught out for holding intolerant views Kenney disowns.
He’s been accused of practicing a double standard in past political lives. During his time as Conservative immigration minister under Stephen Harper, Kenney boosted the number of newcomers to Canada, while cracking down so hard on asylum seekers that a physician advocating for refugee health care said “it’s creating a terrain of hostile attitudes to refugees.”
In early 2017, Kenney called Trump’s travel ban on Muslim countries “an act of demagogic political theatre,” and recently pushed for settling immigrants in rural Alberta. Yet Kenney seemed to have no problem surrounding himself with xenophobes (and a former Trump campaign staffer) throughout his election campaign.
“Political love at first sight” is how Kenney described his first encounter with Caylan Ford, the UCP candidate who resigned after it was revealed she’d written private Facebook messages saying she is “somehow saddened by the demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands.”
Kenney later said that a conspiracy theory spread by UCP candidate Shane Getson, one claiming that the United Nations is attempting to seize control of Canadian borders, is a “legitimate perspective.”
The left-wing site PressProgress identified at least 30 intolerant candidates Kenney supported during the Alberta election. What was Kenney’s thanks for helping him weed out extremists from his party as he’d declared his intent? After winning he told the National Post he’d be “looking at” legal measures to rein in PressProgress.
The new premier himself has associated with far-right extremists. This could be in the form of his support for the Yellow Vests, a social movement infiltrated by groups like Soldiers of Odin and Northern Guard — or in Kenney’s endorsing of United We Roll, the rebranded Yellow Vest convoy which shipped criticisms of Canada’s carbon tax to Ottawa alongside critiques of the UN Migration Pact.
Canadian hate-group trackers fear that through these actions Kenney has helped embolden potentially dangerous hate organizations.
“You're pandering to them and legitimizing them,” said Tony, an administrator with Yellow Vests Canada Exposed, who asked to only be identified by first name for safety reasons. “Which in all honesty, in my opinion, is just as bad as holding those views. In some ways it could be worse than holding those views.”
Before Trump’s run for president, there was Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s run for re-election. As that 2015 campaign sagged, Harper singled out women who wear the niqab, referred to “old-stock” Canadians and introduced a “barbaric cultural practices hotline.”
The former Conservative prime minister long understood xenophobia to be a political weapon, one he was careful to conceal in some situations and brandish aggressively in others.
Harper’s political career began during the 1990s as a legislator with the Reform Party, whose candidates espoused distrust of newcomers so openly and consistently that a 1997 profile on his party in the Independent described “racists, rednecks and the reform of Canada.” A decade or so later, CNN would characterize Reform as a Canadian forerunner to the U.S. Tea Party.
By then, Harper was on his way to winning his first majority government as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, a merger of sorts between the angry populists of Reform with the country’s more socially moderate fiscal right. Harper kept tight control over his party’s racist, gay-hating and anti-abortion extremists as he courted newcomer communities with promises of lower taxes and traditional social values.
At the same time, Harper’s government cracked down on refugees, at one point deploying, under immigration minister Kenney, armed border guards to detain Tamils fleeing civil war. The Tamils then endured months of interrogation.
This strategy of courting legal newcomers while coldly punishing asylum seekers was so successful that the Tories in 2011 won more votes from foreign-born Canadians (42 per cent) than those born in Canada (37 per cent) — leading some to wonder if it could be a model for right-wing parties in the U.S. and the U.K.
But as Harper approached the 2015 federal election, he went full-on xenophobe, amplifying the non-issue of whether women should wear a niqab during Canadian citizenship ceremonies into the major narrative of his campaign.
Harper’s immigration minister at the time, Chris Alexander, who was in charge of announcing the equally notorious “barbaric cultural practices” hotline, later told CTV that “it was a terrible campaign,” explaining, “it’s why we lost.”
In a recent interview with The Tyee, Alexander further distanced himself from such tactics. “Canada’s always had a good reputation as a beacon of enlightenment on immigration and refugees,” he said. In an era of increasing hostility to newcomers in the US and Europe, he warned, “our leadership role today is more important than ever.”
Many Canadians looked on in horror as Trump began his campaign for president vilifying Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” and then spewed the noxious fumes of nativist identity politics all the way to the White House.
But to Kellie Leitch, who was then campaigning to become the next federal Conservative leader, Trump’s ascent was thrilling to behold, even inspirational. She wrote in a fundraising email to her supporters that “tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president... It's an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada, as well.”
Leitch went on to make screening refugees and immigrants for “Canadian values” central to her campaign. Other leadership contenders saw her values-test as unambiguously dangerous.
When 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette attacked a Quebec City mosque in early 2017, killing six Muslims and injuring 19, Conservative MP Michael Chong argued Leitch’s rhetoric was partly to blame. “This mosque attack is no accident,” he tweeted. “It’s a direct result of demagogues and wannabe demagogues playing to fears and prejudices.” He went on, “It’s time to say, ‘enough.’ Playing footsie with hate is anathema to Canadians’ values. It is dangerous, it is cynical and we need to root it out.”
With the leadership race underway, the Rebel brought hundreds of people to Toronto’s Canada Christian College to rally against Motion 103, a non-binding motion introduced by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, which called on the government to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.”
Leitch, who spoke at the event with Alexander and two other PC leadership candidates, described M103 as “politically correct nonsense.”
The event was a galvanizing moment for the groups tracked by Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “They gained a little bit of mainstream credibility,” he told The Tyee. “It really pumped up the anti-Muslim movement and gave them a lightning rod.”
The founder of Rebel Media knows the metrics that can be gained from inciting fear of newcomers — crank the xenophobia, and viewers and subscribers will follow.
“Rebel Commander” Levant, as he calls himself, has forthrightly told a judge, “I’m a commentator, I’m a pundit. I don’t think in my entire life I’ve ever called myself a reporter.”
His Rebel is many things — creator of racist YouTube videos, purveyor of conspiracy theories, repository for Conservative Party advisors. Adweek magazine calls it “Canada’s version of Breitbart News,” an online outlet that uses the tropes of journalism to advance a far-right political agenda. Steve Bannon, who’s said being called racist is “a badge of honour,” jumped from running Breitbart to becoming Trump’s chief strategist.
During a trip to Israel for the Rebel in 2017, then-host Gavin McInnes defended the beliefs of Holocaust deniers and remarked “I’m becoming anti-Semitic.” The outlet has run videos with titles like “Why more Muslims mean more terror attacks.”
This extreme rhetoric is key to its business model. “They ask readers and viewers to give and keep giving, through paid subscriptions, donations to specific projects, petitions and just general support,” the National Post reported, in 2017, “and that model relies on a steady stream of outrageous content to drive fear and push participation.”
It’s also inseparable from the Rebel’s political ambitions. The software that allows its audience to be monetized was brought in by Hamish Marshall, who in 2017 was using the Rebel’s Toronto office to run Scheer’s leadership campaign for the Conservative Party.
The vulnerability of the Rebel’s revenue sources was made clear following its star correspondent Faith Goldy’s appearance on a Neo-Nazi podcast in Charlottesville. With denouncements from politicians and media, contributors cutting ties, Goldy forced to leave and other prominent hosts departing soon after, viewership fell from 20 million monthly views to under 10 million. Subscribers plateaued.
But even in this diminished state, the Rebel creates an atmosphere of hate and intolerance in Canada that “frightens” Jonathan Goldsbie, an editor and writer at the media outlet Canadaland.
“What [the Rebel] helped catalyze, is that there is a non-trivial number of people in this country who are increasingly well-organized, who on top of everything else, genuinely believe that Islam is an existential threat,” he said. “It is increasingly leaking into the mainstream, and enough people believe it that it is potentially an electoral force.”
The former Rebel host recently told the Globe and Mail she is not a white nationalist or neo-Nazi and does not associate with them. Judge for yourself, given her record, and the way she uses her large social media following to amplify extreme right messages.
Before Goldy was fired, the Rebel ran pieces from her with titles such as “White Genocide in Canada?” She also promoted the Conservative leadership campaign of Scheer, telling viewers of a 2017 interview with him she was “so honoured and so blessed” to have Scheer on the Rebel.
Yet Goldy’s views turned into a liability for the Rebel in Charlottesville. Just hours after filming a white supremacist ramming his car into counter-protesters — injuring 20 and killing 1 — Goldy, who was covering the “Unite the Right” rally for the Rebel, went to an invite-only Neo-Nazi party and appeared on a Daily Stormer podcast. “I salute you all for doing this,” she said.
Goldy’s views, despite an apology on Facebook, have not tempered since then. Five months later she was arguing on a far-right live-stream that “No one is going to save the white man except for himself... and yet we’re like, ‘Keep on bringing the immigrants in.’”
Goldy was an early adopter in Canada of conspiracy theories about the UN Migration Compact, organizing a small Toronto rally in November 2018 to oppose what she falsely claimed would be “the end of sovereignty for our nation.” Scheer would make a similar argument less than two weeks later.
Scheer assured Canadian media that his appearance at the United We Roll rally in Ottawa last February was to support oil workers. Yet several days prior, Goldy wrote on Twitter: “Lying SNAKES in the MSM [mainstream media] are pretending the ‘United We Roll Convoy For Canada’ is only abt pipelines! Have received emails & calls from organizers desperately trying to get the word out: They’re protesting GLOBALISM & the UN MIGRANT PACT too!”
Alheli Picazo, a Calgary-based investigative journalist who has reported extensively on Goldy and Canada’s far-right, told The Tyee that when it comes to aligning with or inserting herself into movements such as United We Roll, “she doesn’t care about [the people]. She doesn't care about any actual issues... It’s all a performance. It’s all a sense of getting more attention for herself. That’s all she’s ever motivated by.”
YELLOW VESTS CANADA
The Yellow Vests Canada movement — which has little in common with the revolt against inequality in France other than the vests worn by protesters — unofficially began on Nov. 24, 2018, with Goldy’s anti-UN Migrant Pact rally in Toronto. This “established the motivation” for later Yellow Vest demonstrations in 52 cities, wrote the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS).
The movement was quickly infiltrated by hate groups, and by people like Dave Selvers, a crane rental company owner in Sault St. Marie who blogged that “WHITE CANADA, MAINLY WHITE HETRO MEN, ARE TARGETED FOR GENOCIDE” and made racist comments about Liberal immigration minister Ahmed Hussen.
But in Alberta, where Yellow Vesters also protested Trudeau’s climate policies, political leaders emphasized the more sympathetic economic message while downplaying xenophobia within the leaderless movement.
This was most obvious in mid-December, when United Conservative Leader Kenney spoke at a Yellow Vests rally in Grand Prairie, and then shared a photo on his Twitter page, thanking “the grassroots volunteers who put together today’s amazing rally for Canadian energy.” In the photo are two people wearing jackets identifying them as members of the anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin.
Hate trackers worry some Yellow Vesters are capable of physical violence. After a Kamloops radio host criticized the movement for “delusional conspiracy theories,” he received so many death threats the RCMP offered to escort him home. One Yellow Vest supporter in Kamloops has called for police to be shot and was sentenced to five years in jail in 2010 for aiming a firearm at RCMP officers.
“The nature of these social movements is that everyone has their own reason for being involved,” said Candyce Kelshall, president of CASIS-Vancouver. Far-right extremists are drawn to Yellow Vests Canada, she explained, “to normalize their views and reach a wider audience.”
This city councillor from Innisfail, Alberta, helped organized the United We Roll convoy to Ottawa, providing a high-profile platform for aggrieved oil workers — and also anti-migrant hate groups.
After Yellow Vests Canada took off last December, Carritt began planning a truck convoy that could deliver its concerns to Parliament. But perceived extremism made the convoy a hard sell to oil and gas industry groups. “Right from the get-go, they really didn’t want to associate with the Yellow Vests,” he told the site JWN.
In mid-February, Carritt and his fellow organizers changed the name of the “Yellow Vests Canada Convoy” to “United We Roll,” claiming to reporters that “We will not tolerate any racism.”
Yet many United We Roll organizers were also associated with the Yellow Vests, and much discussion online about the convoy centred around repealing the UN Global Compact for Migration. “The name change was moot as far as we’re concerned,” said Tony from Yellow Vests Canada Exposed.
As the convoy headed from Alberta to Ottawa, it picked up one endorsement after another. Kenney wished it “safe travels.” Goldy urged her Twitter followers to retweet “IF YOU STAND WITH THESE PATRIOTS.”
Scheer told convoy demonstrators, which at one point during their two days in Ottawa included members of Northern Guard, that “we’re fighting for you.” Bernier said, “I want to thank you for being here to protest.” The Rebel filed one dispatch after another.
By the time Carritt returned home to Alberta he’d formed some conclusions. “The mainstream media certainly wanted to portray the negative connotation to anything that was stated about the UN compact,” Carritt told The Tyee during an interview in the front office of his oilfield safety services shop. “But the mainstream media is unfortunately very biased.”
Second, the Yellow Vesters who supported his cause were not enemies. “If they create awareness for the oil and gas industry, that’s a good thing,” he said. “And I’ll support anybody that does that.”
Third, the Canadian government needs to do far more to prioritize the needs of its own citizens before those of immigrants. “We’ve got to take care our own country first,” he said. “Alberta has hundreds of thousands of people out of work.”
So had the convoy been a success in his opinion? “I do believe that our voice was definitely heard,” Carritt said.
On March 14, a white nationalist massacred 50 Muslims in New Zealand, wounding 50 more. As the world reeled, Conservative leader Scheer tweeted a statement that made no mention of the victims’ Muslim faith. Instead, the victim was “freedom” for all.
“Freedom has come under attack in New Zealand as peaceful worshippers are targeted in a despicable act of evil. All people must be able to practice their faith freely and without fear.”
Was Scheer, by his omission, mindful of bigots recoiling at a sympathetic mention of Muslims? Was he trying to keep their negative electrical current flowing into his mounting federal campaign?
Whatever his calculations, he received an unpleasant shock. Criticism rolled in for the timid vagueness of his statement. Fifteen hours after the attack, Scheer put out another statement including: “To the Muslim community around the world and here at home in Canada, we stand with you.” Too late and therefore too suspect, warned columnist Andrew Coyne among others.
In October, voters will send a message to politicians and media who think sowing ethnic division and intolerance is a legitimate way to power up. They can pull the plug.