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Analysis

How Canada’s Right-Wing Pivoted From COVID-19 Conspiracies to Conspiracies About Gender in 2023

2023 saw protests at drag story time events, anti-LGBTQ+ rallies targeting schools and Pierre Poilievre boosting ‘gender ideology’ conspiracies

Canada’s far-right began 2023 wandering aimlessly in the freezing cold.

Following a high from the 2022 Freedom Convoy, Canada’s far-right quickly found itself falling back down to earth as many convoy leaders found themselves in prison and their activities under increased police surveillance.

Making matters worse, with public health restrictions lifting, conspiracies revolving around vaccines and public health authorities were beginning to lose traction compared to the darkest and most uncertain days of COVID-19.

On Christmas Day 2022, some of the original Freedom Convoy organizers tried to capture lightning twice by planning a convoy reunion in Winnipeg – a convoy that went nowhere thanks to confusing directions and fighting between organizers.

Last January, Canadian Anti-Hate Network Deputy Director Liz Simons predicted Canada’s far-right would likely pivot away from COVID-19 conspiracies and begin to “branch out to more anti-2SLGBTQ+ messaging” in 2023.

That pivot had already begun months earlier.

Far-right activists had been aggressively targeting school boards in opposition to masking policies and other public health measures in schools, something that coincided with the emergence of a network of “anti-woke” school trustee candidates pushing anti-trans rhetoric and conspiracies about “gender ideology” during municipal elections in Ontario and British Columbia in 2022.

With the failure of the convoy reunion in Winnipeg and convoy-style events receiving increased scrutiny from the media and police, many groups and channels active during the convoy shifted their focus to drag story time events. Soon, many weekend warriors, for whom attending convoy events had become more a lifestyle than a political action, were showing up to drag story time protests across the country, everywhere from Kelowna, BC to Peterborough, Ontario to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

One highly visible group at these events was called “Save Canada,” a Christian nationalist youth group. Save Canada’s leader, a student named Josh Alexander, became a right-wing media celebrity after he was arrested at his Renfrew, Ontario high school for trespassing while he was suspended for his conduct opposing the school’s gender-neutral washrooms.

The group, which wears red, “Make America Great Again”-inspired baseball hats emblazoned with the slogan “Save Canada,” was a volatile presence at a number of drag story time events, including one at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa where a “Save Canada” member was handcuffed by police.

On April 29, “Save Canada” crashed a drag story time event at Toronto’s Fort York Library. As Canadian Anti-Hate Network reporter Peter Smith noted, the group was joined by convoy livestreamers, neo-Nazis and a group called “White Lives Matter.”

Josh Alexander wasn’t there that day — he was on the other side of town that day with an anti-LGBTQ+ influencer named “Billboard Chris” delivering a presentation to conservative insiders at Toronto’s elite Albany Club.

Alexander and “Billboard Chris” are quietly backed by organizations with deep pockets. Alexander receives legal support from a right-wing evangelical group called Liberty Coalition Canada that is recruiting candidates to run for office to change “laws to align with Biblical principles.” Meanwhile, “Billboard Chris” says he was recruited by a US-based right-wing think tank called the Heritage Foundation  to “fight gender ideology.”

The pair used their appearance at the Albany Club as an opportunity to promote their plan to stage an anti-“gender ideology” rally outside three Ottawa schools, an event that would prove to be a key flashpoint for the far-right in 2023.

On June 9, far-right extremists and influencers descended on a quiet west-end Ottawa neighbourhood, leading to chaotic clashes with counterprotesters on residential streets and schools being placed under shelter in place orders. While the rally was condemned by school officials, teachers unions and local municipal leaders, the far-right was energized by the publicity and images generated by the rally.

They were emboldened further a few days later when New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs’ government announced a controversial policy protecting the rights of 2SLGBTQ+ students to be addressed by self-identified names and pronouns.

After starting the year with no clear direction, Canada’s far-right suddenly found its footing and began planning spin-off events.

One spin-off that built on the momentum started by the anti-“gender ideology” rally targeting schools and the controversial QAnon-adjacent film “Sound of Freedom” was a so-called “Save the Children Convoy.”

The Save the Children Convoy, whose leaders included figures affiliated with the Freedom Convoy, revolved around a variety of incoherent pedophile conspiracies about schools, public health authorities and the United Nations.

After the convoy’s Facebook group and TikTok videos began generating a buzz, the leaders of the Save the Children Convoy began holding secret in-person meetings to organize a convoy to Toronto at the end of summer.

According to attendees of these events, top Save the Children Convoy organizers allegedly floated plans to send convoys to multiple cities, including Toronto and Ottawa, where they would jail police and Members of Parliament before sending a final convoy to Tofino, BC to confront the Freemasons and “take the head off the snake.”

Rumours about the Save the Children Convoy contemplating acts of terrorism led other groups to begin planning a “million man march” — a more family-friendly expression of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry than the Save the Children Convoy.

The “One Million March For Children,” a coalition of groups mobilizing in opposition to “gender ideology” and other anti-LGBTQ+ grievances, was organized by a group calling itself “Hands Off Our Kids” whose leaders included a number of social conservative Muslim activists and a man named David Krayden, the former Ottawa bureau chief for the Daily Caller, an American right-wing website.

In fact, the first mention of a “million parson march” against “LGBTQ indoctrination in schools” appeared in an article Krayden published in the PostMillennial on August 1 — though Krayden failed to disclose he was one of the main organizers.

In the lead-up to the march, which was promoted by a number of convoy and Christian nationalist groups, a man stormed into a University of Waterloo gender studies class with knives and attacked a professors and students, an attack police have since described as a terrorism motivated by gender-based grievances.

When the “One Million March For Children” finally took place in late September, it was met by massive counterprotests. In Ottawa, three protesters were arrested for incitement of hatred while in Edmonton, anti-LGBTQ+ protesters tried to surround the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s headquarters. The next day in Toronto, Billboard Chris and Josh Alexander held another rally targeting schools in residential neighbourhood that resulted in additional arrests.

In the fall, the growing paranoia about gender among Canada’s right-wing had become so intense that mainstream Conservatives could no longer ignore their base.

A week after the march, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe vowed to use the notwithstanding clause after a Regina court ruled Moe’s pronoun policy, modelled after New Brunswick’s, was unconstitutional.

That’s around when the so-called Save the Children Convoy finally hit the road.

A few days after the march, police shut down access to downtown Toronto after getting word that the Save the Children Convoy was heading their way. The convoy never showed up, but instead headed to Casselman, Ontario, a rural community 45 minutes east of Ottawa, where it established a base camp in an empty rural lot owned by a local septic tank cleaning company.

The base camp quickly grew to include several semi-permanent structures and over 110 vehicles. The convoy’s leaders would organize nightly speeches that invoked QAnon and sovereign citizen rhetoric while advocating the replacement of Canada’s democratically-elected government.

The Save the Children Convoy proved to be quite chaotic.

On day one, rival factions got into a fight during a joint livestream announcement, resulting in a man being thrown from a moving car while attempting to punch in its windshield.

The convoy later moved to Ottawa, where it staged raucous protests calling for MPs to be jailed while alluding to pedophile conspiracies. Several convoy members were arrested in downtown Ottawa, including one who was tackled and tasered by Ottawa Police in the middle of Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill.

Gordon Berry, Chris Dacey (Facebook)

After weeks of daily protests in front of Parliament and outside local media studios, one of Pierre Polievre’s MPs joined the group for a protest against CTV News.

A few days later, Conservative MP Arnold Viersen invited the Save the Children Convoy into the House of Commons as “VIP” guests, but the group was stopped by security and kicked out.

After a month of chaos, the Save the Children Convoy began to fall apart as divisions and in-fighting broke out among influencers and convoy organizers increasingly turned their attention to conspiratorial new age spiritual beliefs.

The Save the Children Convoy has relocated to a nearby farm where its remaining  members have built a commune to spend the winter months.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who initially forbid Conservative MPs from talking about the march, ended the year by attempting to capture the energy being generated by this far-right movement.

In the October and November, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre began working lines into his speeches railing against “radical gender ideology” — one speech caused Richmond Hill’s deputy mayor to publicly apologize for his role in the homophobic and transphobic speech.

Experts tell PressProgress that this rhetoric borrows a page from the playbook of the far-right around the world, including the United States, Europe and South America, where conspiracies about “gender ideology” and pedophiles are being weaponized to attack politicians and undermine trust in education institutions.

In fact, “gender ideology” conspiracies and “disinformation about the sexualization of children” spread rampantly in the lead-up to Brazil’s 2018 presidential election that resulted in the election of far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro.

Are Canadian conservatives similarly looking to weaponize “gender” ahead of a possible federal election in 2024? We’ll find out over the next 12 months.

 

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Luke LeBrun
Editor
Luke LeBrun is the Editor of PressProgress. His reporting focuses on the federal political scene, right-wing politics as well as issues in technology, media and culture.

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