Despite a last-minute change in venue and relatively short notice, Rebel Media — Canada’s very own answer to the ultra conservative Breitbart News — managed to draw a crowd of over 1,000 people in Toronto for a rally on Wednesday (Feb. 15) to protest M103, a proposed federal motion that condemns “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism.”
The so-called free speech rally was supposed to be held at a casino, but last-minute protests by pro-M103 advocates forced the venue’s management to change its mind. And so organizers phoned up the right-wing Canadian Christian College to save the day, which it did.
This is the same college that hosted Dutch anti-Muslim activist and politician Geert Wilders in 2011 and whose President Charles McVety said that, unlike other religions, Islam has a “mandate for a hostile takeover.” That alone should provide a pretty clear picture of what kind of people trekked their way to attend this in-door rally. An organizer claimed that some even traveled from out of province to make the event.
This sort of apparent dedication is the function of a relatively recent insurgency of the hard right in Canada, for which Rebel Media is perhaps the most prominent outlet. Founded by former Sun News Network personality Ezra Levant, a well-known voice among Canada’s far right, Rebel Media has become a Breitbart-like platform where articles such as “Want to end ‘white privilege’? Find an ‘N-word’ for Caucasians” and “92% of left-wing protesters live with their parents: study” have found a home.
The motion was portrayed as an “Islamist” encroachment on human rights and free speech, the first step to instituting a “sharia compliant” Canada
In light of Donald Trump’s upset victory in November, Rebel Media is one of several social and political elements among Canada’s far right that hopes to replicate the circumstances in which xenophobic populism can be used to deliver hardcore Conservatives to political power. As similar populist waves seem to occur all over the world — from France to India to the Philippines — the idea that Canada, a country known these days for its relatively progressive image and photogenically liberal prime minister, can also be a home for such politics is becoming more and more apparent.
And so M103, a rather toothless motion that has no legal implications whatsoever, is just one issue that this ever coalescing far right can distort and rally against to galvanize its own base. This is the new “conservatism” or “libertarianism” in Canada — not a system of cohesive ideas, but a series of extreme positions espoused by the most extreme people. Others on the right are challenged to fall in line in an attempt to drag the entire national spectrum of conversation to the right. Distorting the facts around M103 is just the latest episode in this drawn-out game.
Proposed last year by a young Liberal MP named Iqra Khalid, M103 isn’t even a bill that can be enshrined into law. It’s a symbolic gesture that, in this case, just so happens to also include a call for a parliamentary committee to study the issue of Islamophobia. That’s it. It has no authority to outlaw anything and has zero implications on freedom of speech or expression.
Khalid proposed the motion not long before a gunman stepped into a mosque this month in Quebec City and killed six worshippers, a tragedy that threw the need for a motion like M103 into sharper relief. The motion was debated on the night of the rally and will be voted on in the near future.
Seeing an opportunity to galvanize its supporters, Rebel Media, along with several other right-wing outlets, started calling the motion a “blasphemy law” that will effectively open the door to a country that will eventually outlaw all criticisms of Islam.
It’s on this non-factual premise that Wednesday night’s rally was held. The motion was portrayed as an “Islamist” encroachment on human rights and free speech, the first step to instituting a “sharia compliant” Canada.
“Islam wants to be the exception”
The room had already been worked up to a fairly raucous frenzy by the time Ezra Levant took the stage. The audience was overwhelmingly White, though a good number of “colored” attendees cheered and heckled with no less enthusiasm than their more populous counterparts.
It was a “big tent” (as far as this political demographic is concerned, anyway) sort of gathering that involved multiple factions of the right, from “Make America/Canada Great Again”-hat-wearing men and women to the notorious Jewish Defense League (JDL), a sometimes-violent Zionist group that, according to the FBI, is responsible for several terrorism plots on U.S. soil. Though there certainly wasn’t total overlap in the political agendas of all the groups and factions in attendance, everyone shared a common enemy: radical Islam and its encroachment on Canadian values.
The rally itself was really just a physical platform from which venting against this Muslim threat could be loudly expressed. It was also clearly a galvanizing space for a night of not-so-obvious right-wing dog whistling by those who took the stage to speak.
It didn’t seem to take much more than a few slogans involving the hated Canadian Broadcasting Corp., “fake news,” and the death of Canadian values (of which free expression is a sacrosanct pillar) to get the crowd going. The MC for the night, another former Sun News Network personality named Faith Goldy, had already put the crowd through this familiar foreplay before Levant took the stage to talk about how “Islamophobia” — the fear and hatred of Islam the religion (and its ardent followers, presumably) — was a fundamental aspect of free expression that M103 wanted to do away with.
“You can’t be afraid of Islam anymore?” Levant asked. “If you read the Quran and aren’t afraid of it, then you’re not a thinking person!”
Once in a while, a lady in the crowd would yell “Exactly!” or “That’s right!” after each assertion and the period applause/cheers would ensue.
“There is nothing you can’t say about Christianity in this country,” Levant continued, “but Islam wants to be the exception!”
It became obvious by the end of his speech that the night was little more that familiar slogans being repeated again and again, making for rather boring rhetoric, though anyone holding such an opinion would’ve been in the minority. The crowd expressed quite clearly that it wasn’t going to sacrifice a handful of beloved xenophobic mottos for the sake of variety.
But if the (very little) substance of this rhetoric falls short of the truly scandalous, then the presence of three other figures on the speakers list certainly shouldn’t. They are Conservative Member of Parliament Kellie Leitch, former Conservative MP Chris Alexander and Conservative Member of Parliament Brad Trost. All three are running for the national leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), to be decided this summer, and all three took the stage Wednesday night to agree with Ezra Levant and the crowd on how M103 is an affront to free expression and how Islam wants to be immune from criticism.
Of the three, Leitch spoke for the shortest amount of time. Aside from getting the crowd to sign her anti-M103 petition via text, she also noted at one point how “it’s great to be in a room of severely normal people tonight.” One quick scan of the auditorium — replete with MAGA hats along with those who cheer for “the right to be Islamophobic” — and it’s clear that the term “normal” has gained a great degree of relativism over the years.
Chris Alexander and Brad Trost were no better, but it was Alexander who articulated anything close to a cohesive ideological argument about why adopting M103 in “an age of terror” is a bad idea. He talked about how, as a diplomat in Afghanistan, he helped the troops fight against the terror of the Taliban and how today’s terrorism makes the Taliban “look puny.”
“I have a lot of trouble with the notion that talks about hatred-this, phobia-that and doesn’t mention the number one threat in the world today, which is Islamic jihadist terrorism,” he said.
These politicians’ presence at the rally is a scandalous event in and of itself, given the kind of views that Rebel Media directly and indirectly exhibits
The crowd cheered enthusiastically at this rather false subjective assertion, as intelligence agencies in Canada have documented right-wing militarism as being equally (if not more) dangerous to public safety than Muslim terrorism. This was underscored by the mosque shooting in Quebec City in January, Canada’s deadliest post-9/11 act of terrorism.
Leitch, among others in the CPC leadership race, was by that time already known for her willingness to stoke the same kind of fire that Trump had appropriated so successfully. She even sent out an email to her supporters on the night of Trump’s presidential win that the victory was an “exciting message” for Canadians who’re tired of the elitist establishment. She then went on to propose a screening of “Canadian values” for all foreigners who want to live in Canada.
Of all the candidates for the leadership race, Leitch has established herself as the one most willing to try and drag Canadian politics to the right to win votes. And so many in Canadian society drew a straight line between the kind of dog-whistling she was conducting, the caustic political climate she contributed to, and the Quebec City mosque shooting. This has hurt her chances as her main strategist, Nick Kouvalis — an expert at turning populist sentiment into votes — recently left her campaign.
Alexander, on the other hand, though not as up front with his tactics as Leitch, cosponsored a bill with her in 2015, not long before that fall’s general election, called the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. It was a blatant reference to the “backwardness” of non-White Canadians and particularly Muslims who lived according to their supposedly barbaric ways. The bill also included a “hot line” where those who witness these “barbaric cultural acts” can report what they observe to the proper authorities. It was one of the more absurd moments leading up to the November 2015 election, which Conservatives lost to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, but Leitch retained her seat. Alexander was defeated, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to gain the party leadership.
These politicians’ presence at the rally is a scandalous event in and of itself, given the kind of views that Rebel Media directly and indirectly exhibits. For instance, not long ago, Faith Goldy recorded a series of videos on the Quebec City shooting that insinuated a kind of cover-up by the government and the media for reasons she didn’t directly specify. But any viewer with half a brain could tell that she was implying some sort of jihadist element in the incident that no one other than Rebel Media, which shudders at the idea of “political correctness,” is actually willing to talk about.
That Leitch, Alexander and Trost (Pierre Lemieux, another CPC leadership candidate, didn’t take the stage but had his people set up a table in the auditorium with his pamphlets) have thrown in a lot of their eggs in the Rebel Media basket is enough of a sign that Canadian politics is in no way immune to the right-wing populism that’s sweeping over much of the world today.
Fake news and the future of Bizzaro Canada
Perhaps the strangest moment of the night came when Goldy took the stage near the end of the rally and chastised the “fake news” media. This is common practice among the right these days, but in this particular instance, Goldy directed her words specifically at the handful of journalists who were covering the event.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” she said. “You are fake news!”
The crowd had already been quite worked up at that point. Each speech was calculated to galvanize and concentrate the attendees’ frustration at Muslims, the media, liberals, etc. and much of the audience was chomping at the bits for something or someone to antagonize. For Goldy at this point to direct her words at the reporters, who were lined up quite conspicuously on one side of the room with their cameras and smartphones, was an attempt to bring this frenzy to its nonviolent limit.
The whole room then started to chant “fake news” at the press row, full of reporters and photographers from NOW Magazine, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), VICE and the National Post among other outlets, with at least one guy giving the Heil Hitler salute. This lasted for about 20 seconds or so, but it was as close as it got to a serious confrontation for the night.
“I could’ve gone and worked for the mainstream media,” Goldy said, “but this is just so much more fun!”
There couldn’t have been more than a dozen or so reporters covering a rally of over 1,000 people. To have been shouted down and intimidated in that way revealed just how much hate the audience had for those in the media who don’t support their version of the world.
It was as close a gathering of the so-called alt right as one could probably get to in Canada. The night was also replete with words and phrases — “cuck,” “fake news,” “SJWs,” etc. — that have come to represent the “alt right” universe.
To be in the middle of it was to physically experience something akin to a real-life version of DC Comic’s “Bizarro World,” where every aspect of reality is somehow appropriated or inverted to fit a very particular set of views.
This kind of politics has been categorized until recently as “fringe,” but the term is perhaps better defined these days by the substance of the opinions than the number of people who adhere to them. Given the size of the rally’s crowd and the speed at which it was mobilized, it’s clear that Rebel Media represents a significant constituency of people who see themselves as part of a global wave of right-wing populism, guided more or less by “alt right” values and on the political ascent.
An effective movement has never really needed to galvanize a majority of the population to gain traction, even at the national level. A group of well-organized people that number in the dozens, with the help of social media and other digital tools, can push certain views — no matter how bizarre and unverified by facts — into the public sphere.
It seems that those in Canada’s extreme right are getting their ducks in a row at a speed that should prompt many of their rivals, particularly those in the Muslim community, to be very wary of.