Day 6·Q&A

U.S. conspiracy theories and far-right movement have merged with anti-mask sentiment in Quebec: journalist

Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise again across much of Canada, and Quebec has been hit hardest with upwards of 800 to 900 new cases daily. But the province is also home to one of the loudest and most visible opposition groups to COVID-19 restrictions.

CBC reporter Jonathan Montpetit has been tracking far-right activity in Quebec for years

A man takes part in an anti-mask rally in Montreal on Sept. 30, 2020. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Anti-mask sentiment in Quebec is being fuelled by the province's far-right movement and unfounded conspiracy theories originating in the U.S., says CBC Montreal journalist Jonathan Montpetit.

Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise across much of Canada, and Quebec has been hit hardest with upwards of 800 to 900 daily new cases this week. But the province is also home to one of the loudest and most visible opposition groups to COVID-19 restrictions.

Last month, thousands of people gathered in the streets of downtown Montreal for a march against the government's mandatory mask policy. Amidst the crowds, some waved American flags, carried Trump election campaign signs and donned QAnon symbols. 

Speakers at the rally accused the government and media of fear mongering and exaggerating the threat of the pandemic.

Montpetit, who's been tracking far-right activity in Quebec for years, spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the implications of this growing movement on the public health situation in the province.

Here is part of their conversation.

QAnon is a conspiracy theory based on the idea that Donald Trump is fighting a group of American liberals running a child trafficking ring. How does something like that get translated into Quebec?

I think the easiest way to answer that is to focus on the most prominent conspiracy theorist in the province, a guy by the name of Alexis Cossette-Trudel.

He, for the past two or three years or so, has been operating under a YouTube channel by the name of Radio-Québec and has built a fairly sizable following by effectively translating both the conspiracy theory into the French language, but also kind of making the conspiracy relevant, so to speak, to Quebec and other Francophone listeners in the world by using Canadian and Quebecois reference. 

He will kind of tweak the QAnon conspiracy to have references to Justin Trudeau, to François Legault and the public health director here [Horacio Arruda]. So that, I think, is how a conspiracy theory that is essentially about American politics has been able to gain a foothold here in Quebec.

He's quite an interesting figure. What do you think his aims are here, Jonathan? What kind of a constituency is he trying to build?

This is somebody who began his political involvement quite young. He was the head of the Parti Québécois' youth wing [and] about five years ago, he gets involved in far-right groups in Quebec and advocates themes familiar to people who follow the far-right in Quebec — anti-immigration, a lot of Islamophobic discourse — and then he begins to pick up the QAnon pro-Donald Trump mantra. 

Now, he sees Donald Trump as waging a war against globalization. I think there is part of his discourse that is aimed at nationalist resurgence, which we've seen in Quebec over the last several years, and he's kind of pitching QAnon in a way to try to appeal to people who feel the relevance of the Quebec state is being submerged by forces of globalization.

Marchers in a Montreal anti-mask rally carried signs protesting against COVID-19-related restrictions, and in support of U.S. President Donald Trump. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Alexis Cossette-Trudel is one leader who else is involved, Jonathan?

You also have, interestingly, a lot of evangelical groups. I was speaking to a Concordia, professor, who's an expert in this, who pointed out that most evangelical groups in Quebec are following the public health guidelines, but there are a not-insignificant number of them who are influenced by evangelical pastors in the U.S. who are pro-Trump and have been very vocal in their opposition to public health measures in the U.S., and their arguments are being picked up in Quebec.

They're very prominent in these anti-mask demonstrations and they have their own channels and media network that they're using to produce very polished videos with other leaders of the movement. 

I think that's a very interesting development because Quebec politics tend to be so secular and, certainly, the evangelical Christian groups are not something that we've seen often in the public sphere in Quebec and so I think it's interesting to see them use this movement to move into the limelight.

Anti-mask protesters march in Montreal

CBC News Montreal

4 months agoVideo
The march began outside Quebec Premier François Legault’s office near the McGill University campus, and wound through the streets. 1:00

The last time I spoke to you, we were talking about radio-poubelles, which [are] the far-right shock talk radio stations in and around Quebec City. At the time, they were stoking xenophobia. How are they involved in the anti-mask issue?

To the regimen, they've added anti-mask sentiment. They've had Alexis Cosette-Trudel on the very popular lunch hour show hosted by a guy named Jeff Fillion, who welcomed him, called him a "star" and said he admired his work as it was very detailed and very well-researched — that's a quote. 

So the radio station has given a platform to conspiracy theorists, but it's also used this populist libertarian rhetoric to kind of generate more skepticism about the public health measures in general. Not always drawing on conspiracy theories, but using the language of, "This is a tyrannical move by the government, this is a step towards dictatorship."

What's interesting is that it's become such an issue for the Quebec government that they recorded an ad specifically for Radio X listeners, encouraging them, "Don't get your news online. Don't get your news from conspiracy theorists. Go to trusted sources," and Radio X refused to air the ad.

Did the government push back in anyway? 

The mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume, who has been vocal in the past in his criticism of radio poubelle, announced the other day that he was going to pull all of Quebec City's ads from the radio station. A series of other prominent advertisers also started pulling their advertising from the radio station. 

The radio station kind of pushed back saying, "Freedom of expression. We're renegades. We have the right to question and criticize the governments."

But I think what it really demonstrates is the extent to which public officials are concerned that the kind of rhetoric the kind of voices that are being heard on Radio X are becoming a public health problem.

Some demonstrators carried signs and wore t-shirts and hats denouncing government fear campaigns or suggesting that the lethality of COVID-19 has been overstated. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Quebec brought in new penalties this week to discourage anti-maskers…. Will they deter people, or are they going to give more life to the movement?

Quebec is in a situation right now where cases are going up, and the reason why cases are going up is that there seems to be a minority of people who aren't following the public health guidelines very carefully. That means, though, that the majority has to pay the price. 

So I think if anti-mask activists make very public displays of their defiance of the rules, there's going to be public pressure for the government to crack down because I think the perception is that they're kind of contributing to the worsening public health situation. 

On the flip side, however, I think the government is also very wary about any heavy-handed action directed at the movement. 

In the past, Premier Legault has said he doesn't want to make martyrs out of these people. He doesn't want to give them more legitimacy by making them appear victims of government tyranny, but I think that the government will have a very fine line to tread in the days and weeks to come.

Written and produced by Samraweet Yohannes. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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