On Monday night, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was pelted with gravel while at a campaign stop in London, Ont. The attack came on the heels of some fiery protests throughout the Canadian election campaign where Trudeau had been assailed by angry anti-vax protesters.
To at least one expert, the violence on display towards Trudeau is relatively unsurprising given some of the rhetoric online and at his protests.
“I think there’s increasing concern that this violence is becoming organized, that there are far-right movements that are intersecting with the anti-vax movements,” said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor and national security expert at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
While Trudeau brushed off the attack initially, he later acknowledged he was hit. Leading up to the gravel attack, Trudeau was forced to cancel an event in Bolton, Ont. due to security concerns from protestors.
At multiple stops, protesters could be heard yelling obscenities and at times calling for the death of the Liberal leader.
Threats to Trudeau have become more prominent since he was re-elected. A Quebec man, Andre Audet, was charged with public incitement of hatred and willful promotion of hatred for comments about the Liberal leader for two separate posts in 2019.
On July 2, 2020, a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, Corey Hurren attempted to attack the Prime Minister at his home with a truck packed with loaded firearms. Hurren was sentenced to prison for six years.
How political rhetoric has descended past words
For years, Amarnath Amarasignam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University, has studied far-right movements and radicalization. To him, the increase in violence is due to the partisan ideologies at play, and the anti-vax movement being infiltrated by some more insidious far-right actors.
“I think we do need to keep a close eye on some of these movements that are operating, a kind of melding of these movements… some of the more far-right groups and some of the more hardened groups might be cooperating or working, working with them as well,” he said.
The anti-vax movement, which Amarasigman said mostly started off with a few small businesses and fitness influencers relying on QAnon, to question the legitimacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and lockdowns. But, now Amarsignam said there’s clear overlap with how the far-right operates, and people, possibly unknowingly are falling into their messaging.
“There’s a real concern that individuals who weren’t far right to begin with weren’t really operating within these spaces, but are now finding these groups and finding these movements,” he said.
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According to Canadian intelligence files obtained by Global News, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-government extremists were capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic by circulating conspiracy theories to attract followers, raise money and encourage violence.
A report by London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that COVID-19 had a significant impact on the growth of right-wing extremism in Canada. Trudeau and the NDP received a majority of the negative criticism, and there was a small “number of posts involving hateful and violent mobilization were identified.”
To Carvin, the far-right and anti-vax movements are less and less indistinguishable. She noted that what happened to Trudeau is a fairly clear influence of far-right movements from other countries, which is supported by findings from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Namely, she points to the Capitol Hill attacks in the U.S., where a mob of supporters backing former president Donald Trump stormed the building, resulting in violence.
“Given the extent to which Canadian politics is influenced by events in the United States, it’s not surprising to me that we are seeing escalation here in Canada,” she said.
While she’s quick to point out that throwing gravel is not the same as charging and overtaking an entire capital building, there are some tenets to what is happening that should be concerning to Canadians. She’s not the only one who feels that way.
“I’m more worried, of course, that there could be a kind of spillover into violence in the weeks ahead,” said Amarasignam.
The political divisions amplifying hate
Trudeau’s two major political opponents, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh have explicitly said they condemn the violence. People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, who had an egg smashed on his head a week ago, said that open discourse, not violence, is the way.
“Some idiot threw pebbles at Mr. Trudeau yesterday. I condemn it. Words are our weapons. But physical violence is ALWAYS wrong,” wrote Bernier on Twitter.
Amarasignam noted that when politicians of any stripe use explosive language towards one another, it can create a chasm effect.
Social media has also played a factor in some of what is happening to Trudeau along his campaign stops, even when they’re not publicly listed, according to Carvin.
“These protests are encouraging people to show up and to express their displeasure in very loud ways,” she said. “Social media here definitely plays a role.”
Both Amarasignam and Carvin are confident that none of this rhetoric is going to be going away soon, but think the far-right is just starting to integrate itself within the anti-vax movement.
“It does seem clear that these far-right elements are looking at the anti-vax movement as fertile ground for recruitment,” said Carvin.