Bernier's talk of 'tyranny' echoes far right militia group's slogan, say experts

People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier has been using a phrase on the campaign trail very similar to one used by a right wing militia group. Experts warn it could give right wing extremists the impression that he endorses them. Bernier's campaign said he has never heard of the group and wasn't aware it uses similar phrasing.

PPC spokesperson says leader had no idea he has been using a phrase similar to Three Percenters' slogan

Members of Oregon Three Percent, a militia group, gather at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., June 27, 2019. The quote on their jackets is one that People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier has been paraphrasing on the campaign trail. (Amanda Lucier/The New York Times)

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has been using a phrase in speeches and in tweets similar to one used by members of a far-right militia group — some of whom participated in the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington earlier this year.

Experts who monitor online extremism say Bernier's repeated use of the phrase — "When tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty" — could be interpreted by members of some far-right extremist groups like the Three Percenters as an endorsement.

Members of the Three Percenters militia group were among those arrested in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Building. In August 2020, Facebook started removing or restricting pages associated with the group under its "Dangerous Individuals and Organizations" policy.

In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government added the Three Percenters to Canada's list of terrorist entities. A member of the 4th Canadian Rangers Patrol Group was released from the Canadian Armed Forces after the military learned he had been involved with the Three Percenters.

Three Percenters often use this phrase: "When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes our duty."

A spokesperson for Bernier said the party leader had no idea that the phrase he's been using for months — a paraphrase of a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson — is nearly identical to one used by Three Percenters.

"Mr. Bernier has never heard of this fringe group and is not aware of their slogans," said Martin Masse. "He's obviously read the headlines about the storming of Congress but doesn't have time to follow the details and is not interested in this bizarre political phenomenon in the U.S. He has his hands full building a party in Canada."

Earlier in the week, Bernier denounced violence on the campaign trail after a protester threw gravel at Trudeau as he was leaving a campaign event.

The PPC has since removed the Elgin Middlesex London riding association president from his post in response to allegations that he threw the gravel at Trudeau.

Masse said Bernier is using the phrase because the Trudeau government is "using undue force to silence us, segregate us and in the process is destroying our democracy and our way of life."

"His message is that given the rise of authoritarianism and the rapid erosion of our rights and freedoms, we need an ideological revolution in this country, away from this authoritarianism and towards a restoration of our fundamental rights and freedoms, and life as it was before COVID," wrote Masse in an email.

"He often talks about this ideological revolution. It has nothing to do with an armed, violent revolution."

Experts in online extremism say that may not be how the message is being received by far-right supporters.

Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said the phrase — using the word "rebellion" rather than "revolution" — is strongly associated with the American Three Percenter movement.

"It's been used all over by far-right movements, including the current COVID conspiracy movement," said Simons.

"It's insurrectionist speak and is a signal to Bernier's followers. He's courting the conspiratorial, far and racist right would-be insurrectionists."

Members of the far right Three Percenter militia movement are among those who have been charged in connection with January's riot at Washington's Capitol Building. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

Barbara Perry, director of Ontario Tech University's Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, said Bernier's message appeals to members of groups like the Three Percenters who "have a siege mentality that their rights are being stripped away."

"It's not just that tweet in isolation," said Perry. "Even his TV ads play to some of those same narratives about freedom and choice and defence ... So it really is pandering to the folks who were originally his base who seem to have come back as well."

Perry said Bernier's message also appeals to the protesters who have been dogging Trudeau's news conferences.

"Because it's such a loose coalition, I think that kind of language and loss of freedoms, loss of rights, resonates with a much broader swath now," she said. "It's not just the extreme right but also those who are protesting against lockdowns and vaccination and masks and all of those health regulations."

Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow with the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right in the U.S., said Bernier's message would appeal to those attracted to the Three Percenters.

"They obviously are appealing to the Three Percenter crowd, for sure," he said.

Ross said Bernier's messaging is also aligned with that of other populist political campaigns, such as those launched by Donald Trump, the U.K. Independence Party and the Yellow Vests.


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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