Wearing a crisp blue shirt and a politician’s smile, he walked up to a group of anti-vaccine mandate protesters and led the pack as it walked down Ottawa’s streets.
Beside him marched a man named James Topp, an anti-vaccine figure now set to face a court martial, who had been walking across the country to draw attention to his opposition to vaccine mandates. Topp, however, had recently joined a podcast run by far-right figurehead Jeremy Mackenzie for over an hour, saying that the podcast and others like it “kept (him) hanging on.” Mackenzie said in January that the “Freedom Convoy,” which gathered in Ottawa in February, could “bring down the government.”
“I want to be there. I want to see this s–-t happen,” Mackenzie said in a YouTube broadcast at the time.
It’s unclear why Poilievre “felt that he needed to” meet with Topp, said Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS analyst who now teaches at Carleton University.
“But it definitely was a choice with consequences,” she said — including, potentially, emboldening and legitimizing the more extreme views among the convoy’s supporters.
Flirting with the far right
Politicians around the world have increasingly toyed with far-right movements and principles in recent years, from spreading unfounded conspiracies about the World Economic Forum to amplifying populist ideas from the fringes of society for political gain.
But as this tactic becomes increasingly popular, experts are starting to worry about the influence politicians could have in legitimizing extreme ideas.
“They seem to be playing this culture war knowingly,” said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, in an interview with Global News.
For Balgord, what Poilievre chose to do on June 30 “wasn’t a surprise.”
“He was positioning himself to earn the support of the far-right in his leadership race.”
It’s not the first time Conservative leadership candidates have jockeyed for the support of the convoy, which was declared an illegal protest in February, not long after Global News reported that some of its organizers have documented ties to extremism and racism.
During a recent debate, candidate Leslyn Lewis — who also met with Topp as he arrived in Ottawa for Canada Day — sparred with Poilievre about who supported the convoy first.
While Poilievre insisted he has “stood up for freedom from the very beginning,” Lewis pushed back, saying that “is not true.”
“You did not speak up until it was convenient for you to speak up. You did not even go to the trucker protest. You actually went and you took a picture in your neighbourhood at a local stop,” she retorted, according to The Globe and Mail.
Poilievre said he did indeed show up to support the convoy, but Lewis fired back that he “only” did so “when it was popular.”
By the time this debate took place, many of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” organizers’ ties to white nationalism and racism had been widely published. Hundreds of criminal charges had been laid against participants, as well as organizers, following an unprecedented police operation to clear out what law enforcement has repeatedly called an “occupation.”
B.J. Dichter, one of the organizers of a GoFundMe account supporting the convoy, claimed during a speech at a People’s Party of Canada convention in 2019 that Canada was facing the danger of “political Islamists,” and said the Liberal Party is “infested with Islamists.”
Jason LaFace — who at times uses the name “LaFaci” — was listed as the North and East Ontario organizer for the convoy online and had been cited in other media as the main organizer for Ontario.
According to a screenshot obtained by Global News in January, which was dated April 4, LaFace posted a selfie where he wore a hat and jacket with what appears to be the initials S.O.O., which is believed to stand for Soldiers of Odin — an anti-immigrant group first established in Finland.
Pat King, another prominent convoy supporter, has posted a video where he shared a racist conspiracy theory. In the video, he alluded to a plan to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race because they are the ones with the strongest bloodlines.”
This conspiracy theory is known as “race replacement theory” and was thought to be a motivating factor in the supermarket shooting that killed 10 people in Buffalo, New York, in May — the same month as the Conservative leadership debate.
The convoy’s links to the far-right didn’t end in February — and neither did the movement’s support from some mainstream politicians.
On June 22, a group of Conservative MPs, including leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis, Jeremy Patzer, Ryan Williams, Arnold Viersen and Dean Allison — among others — met with key convoy figures. Patzer told them they have “allies” in Ottawa.
Global News contacted all these MPs for comment, but only Williams and Viersen replied by the time of publication.
Williams said he “only met with James Topp that day” and does not “legitimatize radical or racial ideas or movements.”
“I support James and his stance against forced vaccine mandates. Of course I condemn white supremacy, all hatred, racism, and intolerance. All MPs do. Nobody in Caucus supports intolerance, bigotry, violence, or extreme views.”
Viersen said “many” of his constituents reached out and asked him to meet with Topp.
“He has been walking across Canada to give voice to Canadians frustrated with continued COVID mandates and restrictions to their freedom. I respect his efforts to stand up for the rights and freedoms of all Canadians.”
He added that he supports Topp’s efforts “to express his disagreement with the government and he has done so in a peaceful and lawful manner.”
Viersen finalized his statement by adding that he’s “disgusted” Global News’ question, which asked whether he would condemn white supremacy.
“It is a loaded question that grants the premise. I have worked hard to stand up for vulnerable and marginalized people across Canada,” he said.
Carvin, meanwhile, pointed out that “a lot of the Conservative candidates” have been part of the convoy movement.
“It’s important to emphasize it’s not just (Poilievre),” Carvin said.
Going forward, she added, it will be interesting to see the convoy’s “tactics.”
“Are you going to see, out of this, an attempt to become a real political movement? Or … is this kind of like a fun jamboree for a bunch of people that have otherwise been rejected by their families to get together once every few months? Because those are very, very different things.”
The People’s Party of Canada had a significant presence at the convoy protests, Carvin said — with leader Maxime Bernier even delivering a speech at a small event.
Derek Sloan, a former Conservative MP and leadership candidate and current leader of the Ontario Party — who has questioned the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and sponsored a Parliamentary petition that referred to the vaccines as “effectively human experimentation”— also marched alongside Topp.
One month before Topp made headlines alongside politicians in Ottawa, he had appeared on far-right figurehead Jeremy Mackenzie’s podcast.
Mackenzie, who was arrested on firearms charges in February, was part of a controversial January YouTube broadcast. During that video, he can be seen claiming that the convoy could “bring down the government” as his co-hosts chimed that they “think we need to assemble the gallows on f—ing Parliament.”
“I want to be there. I want to see this s–t happen,” Mackenzie is seen saying in the broadcast.
In videos of the June 30 march, Paul Alexander, a former health official with ex-U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration, can also be seen walking just behind Poilievre.
Alexander came under fire in 2020, when an email he wrote on July 4 became public. In it, Alexander said he wants “infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle-aged with no conditions” to be “infected” with COVID-19 to help “develop herd (immunity).”
Poilievre defends convoy support
Global News contacted nine former Conservative MPs, strategists, and former staffers to ask for their thoughts about party members associating with individuals tied to the far-right. However, over the course of two days, none agreed to be interviewed.
In a statement sent to Global News, Poilievre’s spokesperson Anthony Koch responded to a request for comment by calling questions about Poilievre’s participation alongside Topp “disingenuous traps” and “unprofessional.”
The campaign did not directly answer any of the questions put to them. Instead, Koch said asking questions about who Poilievre meets with is akin to “guilt by multiple degrees of separation” and offered 283 words largely attacking the credibility of Global News.
The questions sent to the campaign were as follows:
- Does Mr. Poilievre feel he has a responsibility to distance himself from movements that call for actions that violate Canadian law and the principles of our democracy?
- Does he have concerns that his support of figures like Topp, and his silence when Topp’s ties to figures like Mackenzie are revealed, could be interpreted as endorsing such far-right views?
- How does he respond to those criticizing his silence in relation to these far-right figureheads?
- Does Mr. Poilievre condemn white supremacy and comments from Jeremy Mackenzie, including that he’d like to watch gallows go up on Parliament Hill?
This article will be updated if the campaign provides answers to the specific questions asked.
Poilievre’s campaign also said in their statement that he has been “repeatedly calling for individuals who engage in illegal behaviour or express heinous views to be held accountable for their actions.”
When pressed for examples, Koch pointed to a statement Poilievre’s team released in May, after then-Conservative leadership candidate Patrick Brown called on him to condemn King’s remarks about “race replacement theory” in the wake of the Buffalo attacks.
“I condemn the attack in Buffalo and the ugly racist hatred that motivated it. Any and all racism is evil and must be stopped,” Poilievre said in the statement.
“I also denounce the so-called ‘white replacement theory’ as ugly and disgusting hate mongering. I also condemn Pat King and his ugly remarks.”
However, Poilievre’s team did not provide any other examples to support their claim that he “repeatedly” called for “individuals” to be held accountable. In one five-month-old clip provided by Poilievre’s team in support of their statement, he can be seen saying there are people, who “in many cases might not even be part of the official protest,” who have “different and unacceptable views.”
“We can simultaneously (support truckers) while denouncing anyone who promotes extremism,” he says in the video.
In the only other video provided as evidence, Poilievre argued that “whenever you have 5,000-10,000 people who are part of any group, you’re bound to have a number who have or say unacceptable things. And they should be individually responsible for the things they say and do,” he said.
Just days after he made that comment in late January, Global News published evidence that multiple organizers had ties to white supremacy or had espoused hateful rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the current discourse taking hold at more recent convoy protests appears to echo extremist rhetoric already deeply entrenched in the United States. Trump’s election loss in 2020 has amplified conspiratorial rhetoric claiming the victory of U.S. President Joe Biden was fake, or that Trump’s opponents should be tried for treason.
Similar rhetoric is now playing out more and more frequently Canada, following a heated federal election largely centered on vaccine mandates in the fall — and now increasing physical and cyber threats against both politicians and journalists, including at Global News.
In the lead-up to the demonstration on Canada Day, protesters had claimed they planned to arrest Trudeau so he can be tried for “treason.” In a video circulated on social media, one protester can be seen calling the prime minister a homophobic slur and saying he should be hanged.
When asked if he has concerned about the impact this rhetoric could have on our democracy, another protester, Hubert Ziegler from Prescott, Ont., told Global News that he didn’t know if the election that Trudeau won “was for real, or was fake.”
“We don’t have proof of anything,” he said.
There is zero evidence to support any claims of election fraud in the Canadian election.
A dangerous trend
Yet Balgord said when politicians play footsie with the kind of rhetoric present at the convoy protests, the threats posed to Canadian democracy are real.
“Politicians have a more mainstream audience than the extreme fringe does. So when a politician endorses it, marches with them, it is now introducing those ideas, those concepts, those movements, those ideologies to a wider audience,” he explained.
This can both validate and legitimize these extreme ideas in the eyes of the public, Balgord warned.
“When they give legitimacy to the far-right movement, they’re also introducing it to a greater number of otherwise mainstream individuals,” he said.
“So everyday conservatives are now, probably, more exposed to the far right, and some of them will go far right, and that’s where the danger is.”
The risk lies in the fact that when protesters levy claims of corruption against politicians without any kind of court judgment to support that claim, the impact is not limited to one politician or one party, Carvin argued.
“It’s basically saying that the entire system is corrupt and that it needs to be overthrown,” she said.
“This is kind of how extremist movements are born.”
Still, most Canadians remain united. Only 15 per cent of Canadians haven’t had any COVID-19 vaccine doses, and the growing group of anti-establishment protesters remains a manageable size, Carvin said.
“This movement is still largely considered a public order issue, which means that it’s still very much within the realm of police and law enforcement agencies that are mostly tasked with making sure that things don’t get out of hand,” she said.
But Balgord warned if politicians continue to legitimize the ideas and actions of people tied to the far-right, they could keep growing — eventually presenting a real threat to society.
“If that number continues to grow, it becomes sizable enough to actually threaten the existence of a small “L” liberal democracy,” he said.
“By legitimating the far-right movement, Pierre Poilievre and politicians of his ilk are helping to grow that number.”