Known white nationalists, far-right groups among election protest organizers, expert says
Since the beginning of the federal election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been dogged by groups of vocal protesters shouting obscenities, hurling racist and misogynistic slurs, and carrying graphic signs.
Some of the people attending these protests are the same cast of characters who have been staging anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests throughout the pandemic, according to observations from the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. Others are newcomers, joining in to oppose vaccine mandates and other COVID-19-related election promises.
But at the heart of the protests are prominent members of what experts describe as far-right, pro-insurrectionist hate groups who subscribe to a range of extreme views.
“They’re talking about hanging journalists, hanging the political opposition,” Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday.
“This is a hard pill for people to swallow, but we would describe this as an anti-democratic and pro-insurrectionist movement.”
A ‘GROWING MOVEMENT’ DATING BACK TO PRE-PANDEMIC PROTESTS
According to Simons, many of the prominent voices involved in this movement can be traced back to the 2017 protests over M-103, a motion that called on the House of Commons to condemn Islamophobia.
“When the anti-M-103 movement started to gain traction, that was really when the so-called ‘patriot movement' took to the streets in significant numbers,” she said. “Their next lightning rod was the Yellow Vest Canada movement. We saw significant numbers online, over 100,000 members in some groups and significant street level protest.”
When the pandemic hit, many of the same individuals began participating in the COVID-19 conspiracy movement, Simons says based on observations her organization made when comparing footage of the protests. These individuals often capitalized on legitimate grievances caused by the pandemic like economic concerns related to lockdowns.
“Once it gets to the pandemic, we have a number of serious and legitimate grievances. But the underlying kind of tenor is that it’s a hate movement,” Simons said.
“As it's been growing, we have more and more bad actors, actual neo-Nazis, white nationalists and hate group members who recognize the divide, are ready to exploit it and they're ready to recruit.
"This didn’t come out of nowhere.”
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has identified known white nationalists in attendance at the Sept. 6 campaign stop in London, Ont. that ended in gravel being thrown in Trudeau’s direction, including Tyler Russell, leader of the far-right group Canada First. Several individuals affiliated with the People’s Party of Canada were also identified.
But Simons described the group as largely non-partisan, noting that Conservative politicians like Ontario Premier Doug Ford have also been targeted by key members of the movement.
“When we say that they're non-partisan, what we mean is that they're really not connected to any one party, but if there was a party that they were throwing their support behind, it would be the PPC,” Simons said.
“Anyone that supports health mandate, or supports vaccines is their enemy… they see [Trudeau] as a good opportunity, but they’re also going after others.”
PROTESTS BEING PLANNED ON FACEBOOK, TELEGRAM
As both the campaign and protests heat up, The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has continued to track conversations among the groups, many of which appear to take place on Telegram, a heavily encrypted messaging platform that has surged in popularity among right-wing groups and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists.
Channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are also being used to plan protests and share campaign event itineraries and plot the tracks of campaign buses.
Russell, for example, took to Discord, a messaging app made popular by gamers, ahead of the Sept. 6 event to say he was aware that Trudeau was bound for London, claiming “we have a guy following the bus.”
One prominent Facebook page that acts as an online gathering point for protesters in Ontario, boasting nearly 5,000 members, routinely posts links to media advisories asking users for details about Trudeau’s whereabouts.
“Watch out for decoys,” reads a comment on one post. “In order to keep the angry mob away from him, they will have a plan B to look good at a comfortable location at the last minute.”
While Facebook offers a wide reach for these groups to find new supporters, platforms like Telegram provide shelter from the restrictions Facebook places on content like COVID-19 misinformation and hate speech.
"We do not tolerate hate or harassment on Facebook. We proactively remove content that violates our policies when we detect it, as well as when it is reported to us. This includes content that has any potential for real world harm. We are continually reviewing activity on our platform for potential violations and take action in line with our Community Standards," a Facebook spokesperson told CTVNews.ca via email.
Although Facebook does not limit its users from planning protests, its user agreement prohibits harassment, including "calls for death, serious disease or disability, or physical harm aimed at an individual or group."
PEOPLE WITH GENUINE CONCERNS ‘AT RISK’
Simons says that she’s also concerned about Canadians with genuine grievances getting involved in protests that puts them – in some cases unknowingly – shoulder-to-shoulder with hate groups.
“It’s really doing our dialogue a disservice if we chalk all of the vaccine hesitancy up to these types of people. There are people who do have very genuine concerns and they’re at risk of being sucked into these movements.” she said.
“It's scary to see it playing out the way it is on the campaign trail. But these people are not just going to go away when this campaign is over. There's always going to be surface-level, legitimate grievances like the economy, the working class and what have you."
"[But] the more people are feeling disillusioned and anxious about those things, the more people are at risk of being sucked in. And right now, we have this massive network of people with all kinds of belief systems, and not all of them are hateful right now.”
Edited by Ryan Flanagan