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.
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 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."
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 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.
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.
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.