Freedom Convoy: New Age Healers and Right Wing Militants Come Together in Ottawa
How two seemingly incompatible movements have united over vaccine mandates.
It’s a hodgepodge of new age magic and alt-right propaganda.
As you scroll through Canada Unity’s message boards, it dawns on you that nothing seems to add up. A cartoon of Bill Gates stabbing someone with a syringe sits above an ad for “Burlington’s Only Metaphysical Shop” (they sell crystals and tarot cards).
Further down the page, a woman claims the RCMP is “investigating Justin Trudeau for a hate crime.” A few posts later, someone shares a full page photo of their cat, which appears to be a longhaired tabby.
Canada Unity is one of the nerve centres for the Freedom Convoy to Ottawa. Its leaders coordinate parade routes, supply runs and warn each other about not carrying hateful symbols during the Ottawa protests — which have been shutting down traffic in the capital since Saturday.
The site also gives us a glimpse at how two seemingly incompatible movements have united against vaccine mandates.
On one side, you have Canada Unity organizers like Pat King — an Alberta man who warns that accepting refugees into our country will lead to “depopulation of the caucasian race.”
On the other, the convoy has been endorsed by wellness influencers like Angela Price — whose website boasts articles called “Valentines Day Kids Edition” and “Christmas Gift Hits” alongside self-help columns. Price posted that she’s uncomfortable with vaccine mandates but has otherwise never been affiliated with right wing causes.
What’s happening here?
One researcher says COVID-19 conspiracies have brought two disparate groups together: far right wing ideologues and new age spiritual influencers. Their belief systems seem, for the most part, incompatible. But they appear to have one thing in common: a conspiratorial view of the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccine
That might explain why naturopath/pop singer Amélie Paul was at the same march as white nationalists.
“What we’re seeing in Quebec and across Canada is a rise in populism that’s been accelerated by the pandemic,” said Martin Geoffroy, a college professor and co-author of a study on COVID-19 conspiracy theories. “Populism thrives on fear and this pandemic has created an opportunity structure for the far right to grow.”
Geoffroy’s team reviewed about 500 hours of social media videos posted from early 2020 until the end of 2021.
“If I watched all the videos I’d go mad,” he said. “We pay students to watch some, we split the workload, it’s a lot to take in.”
This isn’t Geoffroy’s first rodeo. He’s been tracking far right groups like La Meute, Storm Alliance and Soldiers of Odin for years. But unlike most other academics, his research subjects have shown up at his lectures to heckle him and he’s been on the receiving end of death threats.
So when coronavirus came to our shores two years ago, Geoffroy noticed that the same people who’d been harassing him were pushing out conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
Steeve L’Artiss Charland, a veteran of Quebec’s far right, posted a video last year where he cursed Premier François Legault and implied there were shadowy forces “pulling the strings” behind the province’s pandemic response. Alexis Cossette Trudel, a QAnon conspiracy theorist, has called COVID-19 a “fantom menace” to give governments more control over their constituents.
Charland was still on the ground in Ottawa Wednesday with dozens of supporters. Meanwhile, QAnon signs with the infamous slogans “WWG1WWA” and “Save the Children” were spotted all over the rally Saturday. QAnon was one of the driving forces behind the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection in Washington D.C. last year. Cossette Trudel’s involvement with QAnon was big business — his video channel had 124,000 subscribers until he was booted from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for spreading misinformation late last year.
“I wasn’t surprised by it, these groups thrive during times of social crisis, famine, war or, in this case, a pandemic,” said Geoffroy, a sociology professor at Cégep Édouard Montpetit. “What may be surprising, to some, is this other ideological matrix. It’s life coaches, gurus, spiritual and religious people who are spreading conspiracy theories about COVID-19 as well.”
Amélie Paul is a pop singer and influencer who believes illnesses are a reflection of our emotional turmoil. She refers to COVID-19 as “a cold” or “imaginary COVID” and suggests it’s a gift sent to sharpen our body’s immune system. On Tuesday she asked her 63,000 Facebook followers to send footage of the Freedom Convoy so she could use it in a music video for “Aide-moi.”
Mel Goyer is another influencer Geoffroy and his colleagues studied. She offers life coaching sessions, conferences about “connecting with your inner kid” but also blogs about people being injected with government microchips. On Wednesday she Tweeted that the media was too afraid to show photos of what she claims is a new convoy on its way from Saskatchewan to Ottawa.
Though Paul, Goyer and their followers may not adhere to the xenophobic views of the far right, they share a deep suspicion of the liberal democracy, mainstream media, scientists and academics. There’s been a similar trend in the United States, where yoga and wellness influencers peddle pseudoscientific cures to COVID-19 and traffic in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.
“We’re at a time where we’re being presented with complex problems that require complex solutions,” said Geoffroy. “And a lot of these conspiracy theorists don’t want to believe that. Instead, they’re offering easy, ready-made answers. Those answers tend to advance their personal agenda, whether it’s selling you something or making them more powerful inside their movement.”
Here’s where I’m struggling.
I know and love people who took part in the Freedom Convoy. These are people who’ve had bad experiences in the healthcare system, people frustrated with this government and, like so many of us, are just plain fed up with the pandemic.
They aren’t white nationalists and most never struck me as politically engaged but, on the issue of vaccine mandates, they’ve found a cause worth fighting against. It just so happens that their allies in this fight are people who protest at the Canada-U.S. border to intimidate refugee claimants and threaten to kill journalists.
When the convoy started taking over Ottawa Friday, I received an email from the Canadian Association of Journalists urging any member who covers the protest to protect themselves.
“Journalists have received death threats littered with racist epithets. Others have been spat on and verbally and physically harassed,” writes CAJ President Brent Jolly. “In another case, the windows of a CBC/Radio-Canada news cruiser were broken.”
Covering the anti vaccination movement has become synonymous with online harassment. Last week, a convoy supporter wrote that he wanted to stab and shoot me before warning of a civil war between supporters and opponents of vaccine mandates. A few months back, when I wrote critically about People’s Party of Canada leader and convoy supporter Maxime Bernier, one of his supporters wrote to tell me I’d be the victim of such a brutal lynching that I’d “beg" for them to hang me and read treason charges.
It’s become almost customary for reporters to trade notes on their death threats. Women and journalists of colour, in particular, receive an alarming amount of hate mail. These include rape and death threats, photos of their family lifted from social media and emailed to their personal accounts.
A reoccurring theme is the threat that journalists will be publicly hanged for treason. They sometimes allude to the “Day of the Rope” — a Neo Nazi fantasy where journalists, politicians and women in relationships with Black men will be hanged for being race traitors.
I've learned to take the lynching threats less seriously. If, in someone’s fantasy scenario, they need a mob of people to help murder you, they probably wouldn’t be comfortable doing it themselves. So you take comfort in the fact that maybe they’re just lonely.
But I can’t help but think that, one day, someone is going to make good on their threats and kill one of us.
What scares me most, about what we’re seeing in Ottawa, is that people I know — Green Party supporters, a former lefty journalist, vegans who volunteer with the homeless — are swimming in the same ideological waters as groups that traffic in fascist rhetoric. They don’t see it that way.
“Do you think the majority of the convoy is racist? Come on, man this isn’t about that,” one friend messaged me. “I think the media is exaggerating the importance (of the far right) in the movement to discredit it. This is a working class movement about taking freedom back from the government. Nothing nefarious about that.”
An old friend explained her frustration with how the protest is being covered by media. The emphasis on swastikas and hate groups seemed, to her, to overshadow the substance of the Freedom Convoy. She had reached out on Facebook Messenger Saturday to check in on me after I posted about a death threat I’d received.
“He’s a loser for sending you that,” she wrote. “I also don’t know who that asshole is who wrote that to you — but he doesn’t represent me, or how I would conduct myself.
“Both sides (of this debate) are intense. I think most of us are somewhere in the middle. Every human has this invisible backpack they’re carrying — thoughts on what’s right, wrong, just — and then, their adversaries have the same.”
The friend, an elementary school teacher, says both sides of this debate would benefit from empathizing with the other.
One former Green Party candidate extolled me to focus on the damage caused by vaccine mandates: lost jobs, isolation, depression and suicide. It’s hard for me to square that with the prevalence of hate groups in the Freedom Convoy.
The Canada Anti-Hate network — which monitors far right extremism — says all the groups they follow have a presence at the Ottawa rally.
So far, Geoffroy’s research can’t explain how people from such varied ideological backgrounds have embraced the COVID-19 conspiracy movement. But the next phase of Geoffroy’s project will examine how and why these people end up believing in conspiracy theories.
“I do this work because I need to understand what I don’t understand,” Geoffroy said. “So we have a lot of work ahead of us but I know we’ll find some answers.”
It doesn’t take a researcher to understand how sour the national mood is.
Government messaging on COVID-19 has been inconsistent in the best of times and politically craven at others. Last year, Prime Minister Trudeau called the pandemic the biggest challenge Canadians have faced since World War II. He also prorogued parliament and called a snap election in the midst of this once-in-a-generation crisis.
“There’s a French sociologist who calls this type of radicalization ‘radicalization by frustration,’” Geoffroy said. “A lot of these people feel that they’ve been wronged by the system on a personal level. A person believes they deserve a certain position of power or importance and it doesn’t work out. So they invent a world where they are powerful.
“Take Stéphane Blais. He wanted to be premier of Quebec, he founded a party in the 2018 election. They got 0.2 per cent of the vote. Nothing. So what do you do? He founded an organization and joined the Sovereign Citizen movement to sue the government over frivolous charges.”
Or what of Maxime Bernier, whose failed campaign to lead the Conservative Party of Canada led him to launch his own movement: the People’s Party of Canada? Bernier’s central campaign platform, in last year's federal election, was to eliminate COVID safety measures if his party formed a government.
Of course, it was easy to brush off a party with a candidate who preaches “semen retention” and another who called on Trudeau to be lynched. But the PPC earned 5 per cent of the popular vote with over 800,000 people casting a ballot for the party.
Surprisingly, its rise in the polls didn’t come at the expense of the Conservatives. Some experts see a shift in support from the Green Party to the PPC — whose vote count more than doubled the Greens’.
“All of these movements have one thing in common: they have a real problem with authority,” Geoffroy said. “It might be the courts, the media and the government with far right groups and it might be medical authorities when it comes to the new age spiritual people. They’re against liberal democracy.”
Most of you probably know someone who has been seduced by the anti vaccination movement.
Maybe you’ve even had to cut off ties, limit interactions or just avoid certain topics of conversation. In any case, it can be isolating for vaccine hesitant people to suddenly feel like outcasts in their own family or peer groups. Many no doubt find acceptance in a movement of fellow outcasts frustrated after two years of lockdowns and other inconveniences.
And while I don’t think that the majority of Saturday's protesters harbour racist views, there also seems to be a fair bit of willful ignorance going on. When your protest garners praise from Donald Trump and when people feel comfortable enough to fly the Nazi flag inside the group, you’re not at an anti-vaccine mandate rally anymore. You’re among the fascists.
In the weeks to come, fringe right wing groups will use footage of the convoy in their propaganda videos. They’ll make it seem like there’s an uprising of ordinary, hardworking Canadians against the police state. By then, it won’t matter if someone attended the rally for legitimate reasons, they’ll have already done the far right a huge favour by boosting their numbers.
I suspect the mere fact of having written this will estrange me to a few old friends and maybe even some relatives. But if you don't stand up for something, you’ll fall for everything.
About the photographer…
Caroline Marsh is a photojournalist from Boston, Massachusetts attending Concordia University. She currently works as the Photo Editor of The Link. You can find her work