Cross Country Checkup

Protests at Trudeau rallies an evolution of far-right ideology, says expert

Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, believes those showing up to protest against government COVID-19 restrictions, and what they see as Trudeau's role in them, are individuals steeped in far-right ideology or those who are sympathetic to it. 

Violent incidents at political campaign stops worrying to those who track extremism in Canada

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, is escorted by his RCMP security detail as people protest as he arrives for a campaign stop during the Canadian federal election campaign in Brantford, Ont., Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The protests that have dogged Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's election campaign for weeks shouldn't come as a surprise after months of demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions, says one extremism researcher.

"These people have been protesting against COVID for a long time. People were kind of shocked at the vitriol and the violent rhetoric — and the violence itself — that these people are bringing to the campaign trail," said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

"We're not surprised by it because these people, these COVID conspiracy types, have been very violent for months."

Balgord believes those showing up to protest against government COVID-19 restrictions, and what they see as Trudeau's role in them, are individuals steeped in far-right ideology or those who are sympathetic to it. 

The protests are typically organized by individuals following Trudeau's campaign with the intention of disrupting them, and are shared through social media groups or messaging apps like Telegram.

At recent campaign stops, death threats were uttered against Trudeau and the leader was hit with gravel. Women and people of colour on the leader's security team have also faced misogynistic and racist obscenities.

A man, top right, throws gravel at Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, left, as the RCMP security detail provide protection, while protesters shout. The federal election campaign stop took place at a local microbrewery in London, Ont. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Balgord notes that not all protestors showing up at events are engaging in violent or racist behaviour. However, he says, they remain in the company of those that do.

"They're happy standing next to those people so long as they're all kind of having a hate-fest directed at the things they all hate together. That's kind of the issue with the movement," he said.

OK to ask 'reasonable questions' about lockdowns

Cara Zwibel, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's Fundamental Freedoms Program, says that distinction between peaceful and violent protestors is an important one. 

"This is a moment where our governments are making decisions about our lives in ways that they've never done before," she said pointing to lockdowns and the implementation of proof-of-vaccination programs in some jurisdictions.

"These are extraordinary things, and I think there are reasonable questions to ask about them. And it's not an unreasonable position to say lockdowns are not the right approach, we should be doing something else."

But the trend toward violence at political campaign stops remains a worry for those who track extremism in the country.

WATCH | Leaders speak out against violence at protests

Party leaders condemn violent protests at campaign events

21 days ago
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Several party leaders are speaking out as protests on the campaign trail, especially those against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, become more violent. 1:58

A Kitchener, Ont., man is facing charges for allegedly threatening Trudeau at a campaign stop last month. 

On Thursday, the People's Party of Canada (PPC) confirmed that it had dismissed the riding association president for Elgin Middlesex London, Shane Marshall, over allegations that he was involved with throwing gravel at Trudeau. On Saturday, he was charged with assault with a weapon.

The PPC isn't involved in organizing the protests, according to Balgord, however its supporters are often in attendance with the party's purple signs. And PPC Leader Maxime Bernier denounced the gravel-throwing incident on Twitter.

Bernier himself was attacked at a campaign event in Saskatoon, when a man smashed him in the back of a head with an egg. No charges were laid. 

However, Bernier has been criticized for using a phrase often echoed by a far-right militia group, the Three Percenters, which experts say could be viewed by some as an endorsement of their ideology.

In a statement to CBC News, the party denied any knowledge of the group or connection to the group. "Mr. Bernier has never heard of this fringe group and is not aware of their slogans," said spokesperson Martin Masse.

How conspiracy movements feed far right

Balgord says that the demonstrators at Trudeau rallies are not part of a well-organized group of individuals, though many are aligned with the COVID conspiracy far-right — an evolution of previous movements.

"The far right in Canada has had many different rallying cries [or] issues it has come around. The first big one that we noticed was this anti-Muslim rallying cry against Motion 103, which was the motion in government at the time to condemn Islamophobia," he told Cross Country Checkup.

"Then they went through a period of being Yellow Vests … because they were seeing this movement from France. And now it's COVID conspiracies."

Protesters scream as police secure the property as Liberal leader Justin Trudeau gets ready to announce green incentives towards climate change at a campaign stop during the Canadian federal election campaign in Cambridge, Ont., on Sunday, August 29, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The Yellow Vest movement, for example, began in France as a populist protest over economic inequality and against rising oil prices.

Unlawful behaviour, such as throwing rocks at a politician, should be treated as such, says Zwibel. But the criminality of criticizing a politician — even aggressively — is not cut and dry.

For example, saying that you hate the prime minister, or any other politician, would not meet the bar for hate speech even if it makes others uncomfortable. Causing discomfort, she argues, is actually the purpose of many protests.

"Even though we may not have a lot of sympathy for some of these protesters, I think that the line around lawful protest, we kind of have to give a lot of room," said Zwibel.

"That might mean that we're going to have to allow people to do things that we don't like that make us uncomfortable."


Written by Jason Vermes with files from Steve Howard.

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