Since the introduction of public health measures such as masking requirements and lockdowns during COVID-19, there has been a pushback in Canada. While some of the groups in this movement have been around for decades (such as Vaccine Choice Canada), others have emerged for the purpose of directly responding to public health restrictions and vaccinations.
In a recent report, we note that many of the protestors are those who are frustrated with the impact that public health measures have had on their lives, livelihood and businesses, while many others are figures associated with the far-right, anti-immigrant and anti-government movements. As such, there is concern about the heightened risk of political violence, as well as what the future of this movement may be.
There appear to be four drivers of anti-lockdown narratives in Canada: misinformation reported by alternative media outlets; the adoption of anti-lockdown positions by politicians; extremist groups latching on to COVID-19 conspiracy theories to attract new members; and opposition to public health measures by the religious far-right. Together, these were able to quickly adapt to pandemic conditions, creating their own groups, seeking to co-opt/subvert others, or to fit the pandemic into their own extreme interpretations of the world.
There are two competing trends to consider. First, that the far-right in Canada does not seem to have the popularity of similar movements in the United States and even Europe. In addition, movements in Canada tend to be consumed with interpersonal and intergroup dynamics that prevent a larger, more cohesive movement from emerging. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be concerned.
The anti-lockdown/anti-vaccine movements have had nearly two years in which to network, reach new audiences and test their messages to improve their outreach. These well-networked individuals may continue to stay in touch with extremists as they move to new issues – whatever those may be.
These new grievances will likely be along the lines of previous far-right extremist preoccupations, such as the promotion of anti-immigration, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic views, policies and violence. They may also manifest through a youth-driven culture war that seeks to “take Canada back” from what is seen as a coalition of socialists, progressives and globalists. Conspiracy movement adherents, such as those in the QAnon movement, may seek to tie their beliefs to anti-government extremism, posing a serious threat to public order.
Many of these trends are continuing and, in some cases, worsening as the different actors work toward at least two specific kinds of activities.
While hospitals and vaccine clinics have been continuously targeted by the anti-lockdown movement, recent months have seen an increase in the number of individual-specific protests, often outside the private homes of politicians and medical workers.
Premier Doug Ford of Ontario and various politicians in Alberta, including Health Minister Jason Copping and Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, have all been targeted at their private residences, as have city councillors in St. Catharines and Calgary.
Additionally, protestors are moving beyond politicians. Prominent doctors across Canada have been singled out, particularly when they are in a position of government authority. This includes cases in Nova Scotia and Ontario. There has also been a torrent of abuse directed toward health-care workers online. Many of the individuals being targeted are racialized Canadians.
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Unfortunately, alternative media outlets have called for the further harassment of medical professionals, offering “bounties” for footage of any medical professional seemingly violating a lockdown rule. Employing this type of language and encouraging individuals to invade the private lives of doctors may not be a direct call for violence but it is certainly a call to harass medical professionals. These messages are also being sent out to sizeable audiences that may not understand or appreciate the nuances being conveyed.
Continued protests and political opportunism
Protests have continued into 2022 and we expect there may be further actions (possibly “convoys” or the blockade of highways) so long as pandemic public health restrictions are required. The second weekend of the year saw a large protest in Montreal after new lockdown measures were introduced in Quebec to combat the Omicron wave.
Most notably, a convoy organized by individuals known to have extremist views, is arriving in Ottawa. While the original impetus for the convoy was to protest mandates for truck drivers to be vaccinated to cross the border, it has quickly turned into an event demanding the elimination of all mandates and, for some, the dissolution of the government entirely. This polarization of the movement, which occurred over the course of a week, suggests that despite large numbers of protestors who simply wish to express their frustration, extremists are succeeding in influencing the movement.
At the earlier event in Montreal, featuring People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, attendees carried signs invoking comparison to Nazi Germany. Bernier has also demonstrated he can have influence outside the country as well. An analysis of social media posts relating to anti-lockdown protests in May 2021 by the fact-checking organization Logically found that Canadian social media accounts dominated the global discussion of the protests after Bernier endorsed them. In this sense, we should not be surprised that Bernier continues to leverage discontent around public health measures for political purposes. Although Bernier’s party did not win a single seat in the 2021 federal election, he was able to triple his share of the popular vote to just under six per cent.
Other prominent anti-vax politicians are forming new parties to run in provincial elections. Three far-right alternative parties have formed in Ontario alone, looking to win seats in June’s provincial election. All three are headed by politicians forced out of conservative political parties due to their opposition to public health measures. In Alberta, the Wild Rose Independence Party holds anti-public health measure views as does the recently formed Alberta Statehood Party (which seeks to make Alberta a U.S. state).
In the wake of increased threats, personalized harassment and continued protests, the Canadian government has responded by rapidly passing new legislation in Canada that enhanced Criminal Code offences for intimidating health-care professionals. In response to serious online harassment in December 2021, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino wrote a public letter to Twitter arguing that “social media has a role to play in rooting out harmful online conduct.”
While the social media accounts of some anti-lockdown influencers have been suspended, misinformation remains widespread and is, in some cases, thriving on platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Telegram. Even where prominent anti-vaxxers have caught COVID-19 and required major medical intervention, they and their supporters continue to denigrate the health-care system that saves their lives.
It remains to be seen if the new legislation will be effective in protecting health-care workers. So far, there have been few arrests when protesters descend on the houses and workplaces of politicians and health-care workers. The arrests that have taken place are either for prior offences or for violation of parole conditions.
For example, Kevin J. Johnston was arrested in the United States for failing to appear in court to begin his 18-month jail sentence. Artur and Dawid Pawlowski were arrested for breaching a judge’s order that restrained them from attending any illegal public gathering after participating in a protest outside the home of a politician in Calgary. For the most part, these protests have been allowed to continue unabated. This is concerning because it appears the anti-lockdown movement is becoming increasingly violent in countries such as France, where journalists are targeted and attacked at protests and the U.K., where some people have taken up “direct action” training. Given the connections between the anti-lockdown movement with the far-right in Canada, it is possible that such developments could manifest themselves here.
Little suggests that the amplifiers of the anti-lockdown movement in Canada are in any way retreating during the Omicron wave. Without more action by social media companies or enforcement of newly passed legislation coming into effect this month, we should expect an emboldened anti-lockdown movement to continue to make its presence known in Canada.
This article was updated January 28 to add information about the Ottawa convoy protest.