How right-wing extremists, libertarians and evangelicals built Quebec's movement against COVID-19 restrictions
They may appear to make strange bedfellows, but experts say they share some fundamental values
The main event at a demonstration protesting COVID-19 restrictions last weekend north of Montreal was a speech by Steeve L'Artiss Charland, one-time leader of a far-right group that has since faded from view.
In a parking lot in Mont-Tremblant, Que., Charland told a crowd of around 75 about his miraculous recovery from a childhood illness that had stumped doctors. He then told them they were part of a cosmic struggle of good against evil.
"It's us against them," Charland said to applause. "We're in a spiritual war. We're in a war of darkness against light."
The opposition to public health measures in Quebec has given many figures in the province's foundering far-right movement a chance to re-invent themselves, and to find new audiences.
Charland had been one of the leaders of the Islamophobic group La Meute before leaving last year amid an internal power struggle.
The infighting, according to researchers who monitor the group, contributed to La Meute's decline in popularity.
Charland, meanwhile, has become an active spokesperson for the movement against COVID-19 restrictions. He's been criss-crossing the province to take part in demonstrations.
Several other prominent organizers in what's colloquially known as the anti-mask movement also have close ties to Quebec's far right.
The group behind a large demonstration in Montreal earlier this month, for instance, is headed by Stéphane Blais, a fringe politician who has courted far-right supporters for years.
WATCH | Anti-mask protesters march in Montreal on Sept. 12
His political party, Citoyens au Pouvoir, received less than one per cent of the vote in the last provincial election.
But the non-profit organization he founded in the spring to challenge public health rules claims to have raised $400,000. In Montreal, he spoke to a crowd of several thousand people.
"The far-right movement had kind of died down last year before some of them recycled the anti-mask issue," said Roxane Martel-Perron, a specialist in right-wing extremist groups at the Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence in Montreal.
The movement in Quebec has drawn a wide range of other figures into its orbit as well, including evangelical pastors, libertarian radio hosts and conspiracy theorists.
Their interests sometimes intersect only tangentially, but for the moment these unusual alliances have managed to organize recurring demonstrations across the province, with more slated this weekend. Together, they are seeking to undermine the government's efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Along with members of the far right, the organizational core of the movement in Quebec is composed of conspiracy theorists, though the distinction between the two is not always clear.
The career arc of Quebec's best-known conspiracy theorist, Alexis Cossette-Trudel, illustrates the fuzziness.
Before starting his own YouTube channel, Radio-Québec, Cossette-Trudel was a frequent contributor to several far-right media outlets in the province.
With Radio-Québec, he was among the first to translate into French material from QAnon, a conspiracy movement that began in the U.S. and believes the world is run by a cabal of satanic pedophiles. QAnon theories are often overtly racist or anti-Semitic.
Since the pandemic began, Cossette-Trudel has focused almost exclusively on criticizing the public health rules put in place by Quebec and Ottawa. Subscriptions to his YouTube channel have increased nearly fourfold.
His criticisms are often variations of QAnon theories, such as his recent baseless claim that Premier François Legault is exaggerating the threat of COVID-19 as part of an international plot to prevent U.S. President Donald Trump from being re-elected.
Cossette-Trudel uses his social media reach — his personal Facebook page has 36,000 followers — to promote demonstrations where people rally against COVID-19 restrictions. His speeches at these events are often shared widely by participants.
Last week, Cossette-Trudel was a guest on the top-rated lunch-hour radio show in the Quebec City area.
The radio station, CHOI 98.1 FM (Radio X), is known for airing populist conservative opinions, often with a libertarian bent.
Its hosts and on-air personalities have repeatedly criticized Quebec's public health restrictions, saying they are not justified by current infection rates (experts say the province is already being hit by a second wave).
One Radio X columnist, Éric Duhaime, even organized his own demonstration in August. It attracted more than 1,000 people in Quebec City.
"To force me to wear a mask, to threaten me with $600 tickets — I'm sorry, we're not in communist China here. We live in a democracy," he said in a video ahead of his rally.
Though these on-air figures try to distance themselves from conspiracy theorists, the distinction, again, is not always clear.
When Cossette-Trudel appeared on the lunch-hour radio show, host Jeff Fillion said he was interviewing a "star" whose work was "very detailed and well researched."
Evangelicals step into the public
Next month, Cossette-Trudel and Charland are scheduled to speak at a protest in Montreal that is billed as a "demonstration-gospel concert."
A poster for the event features the names of several evangelical preachers who have become active supporters of the movement.
An evangelical media outlet, ThéoVox, has even taken to broadcasting live from some demonstrations, and produces polished video interviews with organizers and prominent speakers.
André Gagné, a Concordia University professor who studies the Christian right, said it is unusual for evangelical groups in Quebec to engage in politics, but a small number appear to be influenced by pastors in the U.S. who have publicly opposed public health rules.
This particular strain of evangelicalism, Gagné said, associates government control with godless communism or socialism.
It is rooted in an apocalyptic world view that shares many similarities with QAnon-style conspiracy thinking, with its paranoia of secret programs out to control us through vaccines or internet towers.
"This very much parallels the eschatological fictions that have developed in some evangelical circles about the eventual rise of a one-world government headed by an anti-Christ," Gagné said.
This mode of thinking might appear to clash with other spiritual groups that have also joined the protests, such as advocates of new-age therapies.
But Martin Geoffroy, an academic who has studied both new-age and right-wing movements, suggested focusing instead on the fundamental values they do share.
"The common thing is that they are all anti-authority movements," said Geoffroy, who heads CEFIR, the anti-radicalization research centre at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit, a public francophone college in Longueuil.
"Conspiracy theories help them to create a parallel reality where they are the authorities."