Inside Quebec's far right: A secretive online group steps into the real world
In the 1st of a series about Quebec's far right, CBC News gets exclusive access to La Meute
If you drive up Quebec's Route 354 — past Saint-Casimir, Saint-Alban and Sainte-Christine-d'Auvergne — you'll roll into Saint-Raymond, a town built by 175 years of forestry, and now a gateway for the region's snowmobile trails.
There is a restaurant not far from Saint-Raymond's single-spire church. On a snowy Saturday night in late November, about 30 people burst through its doors, ordered beers and swapped fears about radical Islam.
It was a mixed crowd: a couple of former soldiers, a real estate agent, a biologist, a mother of three who blogs about accounting.
Many wore black shirts emblazoned with a wolf paw — the badge of a group that has rapidly become the most visible expression of Quebec's far right.
La Meute — or Wolf Pack — has attracted more than 43,000 people to a secret Facebook group in little over a year.
There, they exchange calls to boycott halal products, circulate petitions against government policies that foster multiculturalism and post stories from little-known publications about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Quebec.
La Meute's leaders are now attempting to translate the group's online popularity into concrete political influence.
They hope to become a lobby group of sorts, dedicated to making Quebecers aware of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism.
"I don't have the desire to live under Shariah. I don't want to live under a totalitarian Islamic regime," said Eric Venne, one of the group's founders, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who goes by Corvus, after the genus of crows, ravens and rooks.
"But we are heading that way. It may not look like it in 2016. Tomorrow, people might go, 'Oh.' But by then it will be too late."
Where others sputtered, La Meute surged
Corvus started La Meute with Patrick Beaudry, another former soldier, in the fall of 2015, just as the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees began arriving in Canada.
At a sugar shack in the Beauce, south of Quebec City, the pair drew up plans for a hierarchical organization modelled on their military background.
They gave it a name to invoke the sense of camaraderie they felt was needed in the face of what they considered a grave existential threat. In an early communiqué, Corvus described the influx of refugees as a "Trojan horse" for Islamic terrorists.
La Meute is among dozens of social media groups, blogs and websites that have popped up in recent years to give voice to concerns about Islam in Quebec.
But where other groups sputtered, La Meute surged.
The group's activities were initially confined to its secret Facebook page. But as the group grew — it had more than 40,000 members by the start of the summer — it diversified.
A non-profit organization was registered to serve as La Meute's fundraising arm, and fundraisers that each drew 150 people were held in Quebec City and the Saguenay.
By August, the group was distributing pamphlets around the province. Later that month, Corvus and several fellow members disrupted an information session near Quebec City organized by a group of volunteers trying to host a family of Syrian refugees.
Corvus grabbed the microphone and shouted, "Think about your choices, and above all, the security of the nation."
La Meute's growth has been so rapid that it has attracted the attention of far-right figures in France and Belgium, who have since borrowed its name and organizational structure.
"La Meute France will be hierarchical, authoritarian and secure," said its founder, François Galvaire, in a Facebook video that has been seen more than 160,000 times.
More Le Pen, less Trump
Corvus arrived at the restaurant in Saint-Raymond wearing a green army jacket and a black La Meute T-shirt, two dog tags and a bullet on a chain around his neck.
He drank Bud Light and ordered surf and turf, but left his meal mostly untouched as he talked, animatedly, about how Quebec's education system is producing "sheep."
Whereas Corvus is soft-spoken, his friend Beaudry indulges in rhetorical bombast, accentuated by the silver mane of shoulder-length hair that he tosses from his eyes with flourish.
"We here in Quebec are the home, the umbilical cord, of European civilization in the Americas," he said.
In a lengthy interview with CBC News, the pair argued that Quebec has become disconnected from its history and culture.
This makes it vulnerable to the designs of radical Islamists, who, they argue, are increasingly imposing their values on the rest of the province through unchecked immigration.
"I get told, 'but that's Islamophobic,'" Corvus acknowledged. "Voyons donc! That's a castrating word. It's used by Islamists to diminish our opinions."
Concerns about immigration and the survival of Quebec culture are central to the platforms of the province's largest opposition parties, the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec.
But La Meute doesn't align itself with either, believing the whole political system to be corrupted by elites.
Its leaders identify more closely with the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who was shunned by mainstream politicians during a visit to Quebec earlier this year.
It is France's Front National, not the populist currents in the U.S., that they see as their natural ally.
"Marine Le Pen is a lot closer to us than Donald Trump," said Sylvain Maikan, La Meute's media liaison.
Like Le Pen, La Meute claims to defend those minority groups — such as women and homosexuals — who may also feel threatened by Islamic fundamentalists.
Corvus even attended a vigil in Montreal's Gay Village following the June shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
"We have almost nothing to do with Trump's ideology," said Maikan. "Trump is racist. We're not. Trump is a misogynist. We're not."
Researchers familiar with the group say it is, indeed, at the moderate end of Quebec's far-right spectrum.
La Meute's leaders tightly monitor its Facebook page, deleting any hint of violence or overt racism. And one of the things Corvus admires most about Le Pen is the way she has shed many of the hardline elements that characterized her father's leadership of the FN.
"Marine is more composed," he said, before adding, "We follow what's happening in France very closely."
From social media sensation to lobby group
La Meute is at a critical juncture in its development. It is being pressured both internally and by other far-right groups to stage protests and take political action.
A breakaway faction held a protest in front of the National Assembly in October that attracted 100 people.
But Corvus and Beaudry refuse to be rushed as they work to transform the group into a bona fide organization.
Their desire is not to see La Meute evolve into a political party, but rather for it to become large enough and organized enough to constitute a force that can't be ignored.
The pair is busy reorganizing La Meute into 20 local chapters, or "clans." They want clan leaders to build "networks of influence" with police and politicians, and find places to meet and report back at weekly intervals.
"Their duty is to create alliances and also to get involved in politics at the local level," said Beaudry.
"We want to make people conscious that they have the power."
Responding to a need?
As the evening in Saint-Raymond came to an end, someone passed around a baseball cap to collect money. A merchandise table, selling everything from pens to La Meute hoodies, also did brisk business by the bar.
Maikan said the group has raised around $11,000 at similar events in recent weeks.
When it came time to take a group photo, several of the Wolf Pack let loose a howl, drowning out the birthday party on the other side of the restaurant.
La Meute members refer to themselves as wolves, and many describe a sense of liberation that comes with realizing others share their concerns.
But at the same time, their opinions may not be so far removed from the Quebec mainstream.
One of the most popular radio hosts in the province, Éric Duhaime, told a colleague on air in March that he understood La Meute's popularity at a time when the Canadian government was giving (refurbished) laptops to Syrian refugees.
"Why is it that all the Syrian refugees get laptops, when many of the people listening to us can't afford one?" Duhaime asked. "People in Quebec are tired of feeling there is a double standard."
We are so happy to have found each other and to talk about a subject that worries us. Otherwise we would be isolated.- Kathleen Côté , La Meute member
Kathleen Côté, a biologist who works at CFB Valcartier, was among the last to leave the Saint-Raymond restaurant that Saturday night in November. She had spent much of her time there listening intently to a couple from Belgium describe the rise of radical Islam in Europe.
Côté said she has been worried about Islamic fundamentalism for years, but felt no one in Quebec was taking the issue seriously.
When she happened to hear one of La Meute's leaders being interviewed on a Quebec City radio station a few months ago, she signed up right away.
"When I encountered La Meute for the first time, I didn't know what it would bring, but Christ, it really responded to something I needed," she said.
"We are so happy to have found each other and to talk about a subject that worries us. Otherwise we would be isolated."