The outside temperatures were frigid when Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC), arrived at Saturday’s 'freedom' rally in Montreal, but the rhetoric heated up quickly. Some protesters carried signs with Bernier’s face on them, while others held up flags bearing Nazi imagery and comparing the Trudeau government to the Nazi regime, a not-so-subtle reminder of the anti-Semitism that often lurks just beneath the surface of the anti-vaccine movement.

Anti-Semitic images make an appearance at the Montreal protest against COVID measures. Photo by André Querry

Bernier joined the thousands of protesters to voice his opposition to public health measures meant to keep people safe amid an unprecedented global pandemic.

“We’re protesting in Montreal today to say #NoVaccineMandates!” Bernier wrote on Twitter.

“We’re here to fight for our freedom and to fight for our rights, but that’s only the beginning,” he said in a video accompanying the tweet. “No to vaccine passports, no to segregation. They are violating our rights, and it’s time to end. That’s only the beginning.”

The anti-vaccine movement has received a boost from PPC Leader Maxime Bernier. Photo by André Querry

The protests were driven mostly by opposition to vaccine mandates and curfews. On Friday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said provinces are likely to introduce mandatory vaccination policies in the months ahead to reduce the burden of surging COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In response, Bernier called Duclos a “fascist” and referred to his suggested vaccine policy as a “draconian violation of our fundamental rights and bodily autonomy.”

"There is no convincing case for compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations," Bernier wrote on Twitter, quoting an op-ed from the National Post. "Mandatory policies are a blunt tool aimed at covering up government ineptitude."

PPC Leader Maxime Bernier joins protesters at the anti-vaccine march in Montreal on Saturday. Photo by André Querry

To be clear, mandatory vaccination policies have been around in Canada since the 1800s, and vaccine cards (“passports”) were implemented just a short time later.

Analysis: The escalating nature of these threats is setting off alarm bells among those who study violent extremism, writes Caroline Orr. #COVID #AntiVaxxers #PPC

But these lessons were lost to history, and in the lead-up to last fall’s federal election, vaccine requirements — along with mask mandates, lockdowns and other pandemic measures — played a historic role in the campaign, giving Bernier and the PPC an opportunity to ride the wave of opposition to new heights of popularity. Although Bernier didn’t win his bid to become the new leader of Canada, the PPC more than doubled its vote total compared to 2019.

Even more importantly, the PPC found its coalition — and the coalition, in turn, found a political party to legitimize its grievances and give its voice a national platform. Under the broad umbrella of opposing what he calls “tyranny,” “authoritarianism” and “fascism,” Bernier has assembled a new brand of far-right populism in Canada. While ordinary voters are certainly part of it, the coalition also includes a volatile mix of far-right groups, including white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Christian nationalists, culture warriors and Yellow Vest protesters, as well as those who align with QAnon and other conspiracy theories, anti-government movements and staunch anti-vaccine activists.

The anti-vaccine movement doesn't have much love for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo by André Querry

‘The risk of political violence is serious’

Signs reading “Unvaccinated Lives Matter” and “pro-choice” were also seen at the protest — a reflection of an intentional rhetorical strategy that appropriates the language of the civil rights movement and uses it to frame anti-vaccine activists as modern-day freedom fighters. These slogans carry a lot of historical and cultural significance, so they’re used to give the anti-vaccine movement the appearance of legitimacy and place it within the longer tradition of civil rights protests, despite not belonging there.

Fascist rhetoric on parade at the anti-COVID measures march in Montreal last weekend. Photo by André Querry

The Montreal protest was attended by an unusually large number of videographers, including from Rebel News, which has a special “Lockdown Reports” section with wall-to-wall coverage of what it breathlessly calls the “police state” in Montreal. Rebel News has been a fixture at many of these protests and recently came under fire when founder Ezra Levant wrote a tweet offering a “$5,000 bounty” to anyone who would send him video of a prominent physician breaking COVID-19 rules.

The dozens of videos posted online during and after the Montreal rally suggest the propaganda value of these protests is not going to waste. But behind the veneer of professionally edited video clips lies a more frightening reality: The anti-vaccine movement has become a vector for radicalization, and national security experts are concerned about what comes next.

“I would definitely say that based on demonstrations during last year’s federal election, calls for ‘bounties’ on medical professionals and the increase in the targeting of politicians’ homes, that the risk of political violence is serious,” former national security analyst Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa, told Canada’s National Observer.

The day after the Montreal protest, anti-vaccine protesters showed up at the home of the Calgary mayor, holding signs calling her a Nazi and a war criminal. That’s not the first time anti-vaccine protesters have descended on the homes of Canadian politicians recently.

At yet another weekend protest, about 250 anti-vaccine zealots showed up at the Global News B.C. building to deliver an ominous warning:

“If we can’t succeed legally — if we can’t succeed now legally — then we are going to be in a civil-war situation. That is a fact,” said protester James Davison, referring to the violent tactics he and his friends would resort to if they couldn’t succeed in undoing vaccine requirements through legal means. Other speakers threatened members of the media.

This is part of a global trend that continues to escalate. In the U.K., ex-soldiers are teaching anti-vaccine extremists how to fight and use weapons to “wage war” against the government. In Germany, police recently foiled a plot by anti-vaccine activists to murder a state premier. At a recent protest in Germany, police were attacked with bottles and fireworks, and one officer was even bitten as police fought to control thousands of anti-vaccine demonstrators. In New York City, an anti-vaccine activist threatened to burn schools to the ground if the city didn’t rescind its vaccine mandate.

The escalating nature of these threats is setting off alarm bells among those who study violent extremism.

“I fear that this might be the year we see people being killed. Either overseas, in the U.S., or here,” Kurt Phillips, board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and founder of Anti-Racist Canada, told Canada’s National Observer. “I hope to God I'm wrong, but that's the direction we are heading in.”

The anti-vaccine movement in Canada has direct ties to violent far-right groups in the U.S., including those involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Alberta-based street preacher Artur Pawlowski, who was charged for breaching public health orders when he organized an anti-mask rally in Calgary in December, spent much of the latter part of 2021 travelling around the U.S. on a tour organized by a religious group that has its own militia. The organizers and participants involved with the tour have close ties to Donald Trump and the “Stop the Steal” movement that motivated the Jan. 6 insurrection, including insiders like Steve Bannon and Gen. Michael Flynn.

Canadian Frontline Nurses, one of the main groups responsible for organizing the protests outside of hospitals across Canada, also has links to the Capitol riot. Two of its founders spoke at a rally organized by Trump supporters on the day of the deadly Capitol attack.

“These groups bleed into each other,” Phillips told Canada’s National Observer. “They’re united in their anger.”

Now, with a new year upon us, Bernier is doubling down on last year’s strategy and looking to an increasingly extreme anti-vaccine movement to propel his political career forward — just as the movement is lurching towards violence in countries across the globe and right here at home.

And similar to what happened, and is happening, in the U.S. since Trump’s election, extremists and fringe candidates are cozying up to more established, mainstream political groups and slowly introducing extreme viewpoints, with the goal of pulling the party towards the fringes and moving the so-called Overton window towards the extreme right. While fringe candidates may not win their elections, extremists still succeed when their ideology gets a platform to influence other more mainstream candidates and parties.

This graph shows the Twitter pull for accounts utilizing common hashtags and terms for the anti-vaccine movement. The large swath of red reveals how the Canadian arm of the movement has started to dominate the conversation, in large part due to its endorsement by Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada. Image credit: Logically

For extremists jumping on Bernier’s bandwagon, the exposure is more than they could dream of. Earlier this year, Bernier and other PPC candidates participated in a series of global anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protests co-ordinated by a QAnon-linked far-right group in Germany whose rallies had been previously linked to violence. The protests were astroturfed — meaning they were meant to create a false impression of widespread grassroots support when, in reality, they were organized and controlled by a behind-the-scenes organization — and advertised under the banner of the “World Wide Rally for Freedom.”

Although the protests didn’t originate in Canada, it only took a few months for Canadian Twitter users to start dominating the online discussion, as seen in an analysis of hashtags and keywords associated with the rally series. According to Logically, a tech company that develops advanced artificial intelligence to fight misinformation, Canada ended up taking over the discussion in this anti-vaccination network “in large part due to its adoption and endorsement by Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada (PPC).”

In other words, Bernier and the PPC are not just part of a volatile global far-right movement driving opposition to vaccines and other pandemic measures — at times, they’ve dominated that movement, at the expense of public health, safety, science and possibly even democracy itself.

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We should be more concerned about this movement than we are; and more courageous in speaking up for public health mandates than we've so far demonstrated. Recent estimates say the RCMP has spent 6 million policing the Wet'suwet'en who oppose an LNG pipeline.........easy and profitable jobs I guess. But where is the law and order will to shut down the crazies and protect the public from the real threat anti-vaccers pose to our health care systems..........and our peaceful civil society???

I guess some of us have more 'rights' than others.

I don't think anyone has the right to threaten violence against public officials.

Nor do they have the right to threaten the health of others or the stability of our health care system.

I think last year some laws were changed to protect those who work in hospitals and clinics from extremists. Let's extend them to prohibit harrassment of public officials in their homes.

And then, let's either figure out how to convince people to get vaccinated. Some will refuse until thier last breath. Perhaps we can arrange for those few to quarentined.

If anyone in Quebec wonders why their Covid numbers are so high, that top photo shows the answer. In that spit fest, only one mask in sight. One cheap little freaking mask. Only Alberta (the most American of Canadian provinces) has a higher percentage of their population affected by Covid.

MEANWHILE, THE WHOLE WORLD IS GOING DOWN DUE TO CLIMATE DISRUPTION. We're heading for extinction, but these bozos ... oh sorry, that just slipped out ... these people are spending their time, money, energy, passion and focus on fighting a vaccine THAT NO ONE IS FORCING THEM TO GET. (Or am I wrong? Are there little men in white lab coats running around Quebec trying to jab these people???) It is all pure choice on their part. And with freedom comes the responsibility of one's choices. But they can't accept that part of the deal. (Can you imagine the freedoms they're going to lose when our species no longer exists?)

Can we get a tiny fraction of this many people into the streets to fight the climate emergency? (Ha. Not since Greta walked with them.)

And yeah, should have known Bernier would be there. At the rate he's going, his name will end up on the crimes against humanity list for his climate change denying and his civil war fomenting. But he won't mind, because he'll get publicity out of it. Except he'll be dead along with the rest of us.

(Who, me? Lost my patience? I wish no one ill. But these people are wasting their valuable angst and anger. Imagine what they could accomplish if they were focused on the right threat? On the most immediate, urgent, dangerous threat. Sigh.)

Hi Julie,

Actually I think the problem in Quebec is a failure of leadership. The province's pandemic leaders appear to be managing this as they would a human-centred political and economic crisis. The leader of the Quebec Liberals Dominique Anglade recently mused whether pandemic policy was being made more on the basis of intuition than science. Here's a quote from the CBC story -

"When we heard the premier saying in mid-December that he was going to increase the number of people for parties in December up to 20, because he was hoping, he was feeling, I mean ... these are decisions based on his intuition, not based on science," she said. "And it got us to where we got today."
(full story here - https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/opposition-return-natass-1.6307433 )

At any rate when you have leadership like this, which some might charitably call 'reactive' and 'confusing' the statements of the day, which often contain decisions that appear at least to contradict assertions that they are following the science, provide pure fodder for conspiracy theorists and are frankly manna for folks like Mr. Bernier.

My first opinion of Mr. Arruda was formed back on April 27, 2020, when he and Mr. Legault announced that schools were to re-open before any could possibly be ready. Some parents even said he was treating kids as little warriors in service of the CAQs quest to quickly re-open the economy. And then in that presser Mr. Arruda hastened to add that any kids who actually got sick with COVID would be 'a bonus' in helping him achieve herd immunity -

(full story here - https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/quebec-elementary-schools-daycares-to-reopen...)

" Legault and the province's director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, had been pushing the idea of so-called "herd immunity" or natural immunity, as a rationale for reopening schools. That strategy involves exposing children to the novel coronavirus in a measured, gradual way to help them develop a natural immunity.
That plan was criticized on the weekend by Canada's chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, who said despite evidence that the virus is particularly dangerous to older people and those with underlying health conditions, younger people are still at risk.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there is no conclusive evidence that people who have recovered from the virus have antibodies that protect them from getting infected again.

But Legault said Monday his decision to reopen schools was not based on a strategy of developing natural immunity."

.. and frankly since then in my opinion at least their handling of the crisis has only gotten worse.

This should put a conservative anti-vaxxer in a quandry. On the one hand they want to proclaim "freedom" But on the other hand, what about those other high-minded conservative principles of personal responsibility, making people pay their way, and decrying moral hazard that rewards people for bad behaviour by taxing and passing costs to others?

The unvaxxed person is, after all, deliberately and knowingly forcing extra costs and burdens on the health care system. They cannot complain, as conservatives, if they are made to bear the responsibility for their behaviour by getting billed for it. Isn't that what conservatives say they stand for.

It is impossible to reason with such people. Individually they are cowards who either need the support of a mob or the anonymity of the internet to unleash their venom. Regardless of which group they belong to, they all have one thing in common: stupidity. The wilful ignorance and utterly delusional world which they inhabit is not a new phenomenon, but it is a dangerous one that directly threatens the public good.

In 1943 the following was written by the German evangelical theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. By then, he had lived ten years under Nazi rule and had observed the stupidity of his fellow Germans first hand. It is a tragic indictment of our modern times that these words could have been written today.

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless.
Neither protests nor the use of force accomplishes anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed — in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical — and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.
For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

Bonhoeffer formed part of a small group of resisters to the Nazi regime. He was accused of association with the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and eventually sent to Flossenburg concentration camp. There, on 9 April 1945, just a few days before it was liberated, he and the remaining prisoners convicted in the plot were stripped naked, marched to the gallows and hanged. Bonhoeffer had true courage, not the false bravado and chest-thumping that masks the stupidity of mobs and narcissistic, internet trolls who indulge in the hyperbole of calling Justin Trudeau and anyone with whom they disagree a Nazi or a fascist. If any of them had actually studied Nazism or fascism, they would be grateful of the polity in which we live rather than the one of their lurid imagination. Perhaps it’s the latter they really want, and if that’s the case, my advice to them is “be careful what you wish for.”

I must agree with other comments that our real difficulties in this pandemic stem from a lack of consistent leadership or leadership, period. Maxime Bernier, however, is not the answer.

Thank you for this great lesson from history. I think I'll archive it for my Christian friends who have inadvertent pre-Nazi tendencies in their comments about Muslims, the predominant "left wing" Canadian media (like, National Post?), immigration of non-whites, etc. etc.

Last Sunday evening I got my COVID booster shot at Vancouver's huge Canada Place convention centre. There had to be over 1,000 people there at the time, all double-masked, distanced and hand-sanitized. The long zigging and zagging sheep runs were like arrivals at Heathrow. This was at the end of a long day of vaxxing the populous -- perhaps over 15,000 in a single day at a single location, and I was very happy to be there with the knowledge that ~90+% of BC residents had gotten at least two jabs by then.

If an anti-vaccine protest coalesced, they wouldn't have gotten far and would be in a very small minority compared to the large crowd getting their jabs. The police would have arrived in minutes to isolate the protesters and arrest those who violated the law. Unfortunately, all it takes is one violent / crazy person among them to make the national news and satisfy the daily quota of sensationalism, inflating it to a portrayal of a false national crisis of violence. This is something Rutger Bregman extensively iterated in his remarkable book, "Humankind.' The only national crisis here is the pandemic itself, and the fact that the unvaxxed are damaging their fellow citizens and the healthcare system so badly by overwhelming the ICUs.

But no. There wasn't a protester in sight and it was a quiet and productive evening.

While browsing in a bookstore in downtown Victoria during the federal election campaign last fall, a small but very noisy anti-vax protest marched by on the street outside. One wild-eyed small man with a bullhorn walked into the doorway and screamed with a super-amplified voice "NO VAX TAX! NO VAX TAX!" into the store for about 10 seconds, making a complete idiot of himself. Maybe the puffed up little fellow felt bigger. The reaction of the people inside was to roll their eyes, shake their heads, plug their ears and move away from the doorway. There was no relevant message to the vast majority of citizens by the protest, just annoyance and anger that the bullhorns were directed into the faces of the nearest people who just happened by. An hour later the small contingent walked back on another street, placards lowered, exhausted by the effort of creating yet another cacophonous session on the grounds of the empty legislature, a place that has seen hundreds before. The world was ignoring them.

This piece focuses on one protest that attracted well-known politicos and a few radical fringe groups. It's news. If they were an armed group, they would have attracted a massive police reaction and would have been shut down. One lone wolf steeped in web site propaganda that nourishes his insecurities may act out occasionally, just as they have before on other issues. None of this means that Max Bernier will become the prime minister, the PPP will form the national government, or influence more than the fringe of one major political party (nothing new there), and will certainly not mean that millions of Canadians will line the streets giving the Nazi salute, though it's clear that a few people would love that.

Ninety per cent of Canadians are vaccinated. Anti-vaxxers have no traction in this country, but they do dampen the efforts to defeat COVID. Bring on the passports already.

Have been a subscriber to National Observer for a few years now. I am flummoxed at this article which claims the threat is from that portion of the population which refuses to be injected with chemicals which do not protect the recipient nor anyone he/she is in contact with from ANYTHING!. The "mainstream" media - of which I THOUGHT N.O. was not a part, has been fueling and fomenting violence and hate against those who have refused to be injected. AND THIS ARTICLE IS TURNING THIS AROUND! So very disillusioned!

"...chemicals which do not protect the recipient nor anyone he/she is in contact with from ANYTHING"

How can you possibly believe this when it is being reported the world over that it is the unvaxxed who are dying and the vaxxed who are not? How fantastical is your paranoia and delusion that you would choose to believe craven nobodies and crackpots on the Internet over the combined scientific expertise of the world's top epidemiologists in dozens of countries at every level of government? You're saying the whole health system, from municipal to provincial to federal, in dozens of advanced democracies of every political persuasion, are in on a senseless conspiracy, for no conceivable reason yet with complete unanimity, in a world where a secret around this wouldn't last for the length of time it takes to post to Facebook. I'm just agog at your faith in your own capacity for discernment.

Either show us the evidence, show us where vaxxed people are dying, or just stop already. You're just plain wrong, but more than that, think about what may be wrong with your head that you would choose to believe random clickbait liars than a global medical consensus.

You'll have a long wait for genuine evidence from the delusional, Dieter. Unfortunately, too many of them will be hit head on by the evidence when they are in the ICU. I find them too selfish for words, but thankfully they form just 10% of the nation's population.

I just read this. It's so disturbing that the far right and Maxime Bernier and the PPC have gained so much traction in Canada. I strongly object to the fact that people like Bernier and media outlets such as Rebel Media can twist the truth or lie in order to advance themselves. I also strongly object to people being able to post signs with swear words such as F...Trudeau on placards and social media. There should be some level of respect required...

How do you allow Freedom of Speech in a democracy while at the same time counter misinformation and disinformation? There are certain journalist standards for mainstream media that reputable news outlets follow. Maybe we need stricter standards for discourse on social media. Maybe there needs to be more oversight of news outlets like Rebel Media...This is not my area of expertise though.

All of this is so dangerous for democracy. And yes, I agree, these rants distract us from the real threat facing us, the Climate Emergency.