Canada’s Anti-Lockdown Movement Should Be Concerning. Why Aren’t We Sounding an Alarm?
You know that one friend you’ve known for years who was always a little bit of a rebel, but tended to fall deep into subcultures?
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
Do you have any friends who have changed any of their social media profile pictures to this recently?
That right; there is the logo for The Line, Canada’s (mostly) homegrown anti-lockdown movement. The splashed red line over a thick black circle has been most popular in Albertan Facebook circles but has gained more than enough traction among Quebec and Ontario residents since its conception.
As of now, The Line claims to have chapters in every Province and Territory except Nunavut and has more than twenty thousand followers on their Facebook page. The Line formed in August and it’s picked up traction fast.
Last week marked a crucial endorsement of The Line, with Maxime Bernier announcing that he would be attending their next weekly Yonge and Dundas rally.
Bernier’s announcement on his Facebook page that he would be attending the next “March For Freedom” rally.
To the delight of most of The Line, he made good on his promise of attending.
Bernier shares coverage of his rally attendance from Andy Ngo’s alt-right column site The Post Millennial. The site has garnered controversy since its inception as its founder was fired from his prior job as a reporter for making Islamophobic comments and has recently doxed a 17-year-old.
Ever since 2015, there’s been this colloquial analogy that Canadians use when discussing conservative politics about “The Canadian Trump”. People used the term to describe Kellie Leitch, Kevin O’Leary, Doug Ford, and Maxime Bernier, all because of their far-right leanings and variably loud personalities.
Bernier’s the only one who’s ever actually fronted a National party, and before then he barely lost the ballot to the Conservative leadership with a whopping 49% support. His politics since 2017 have landed him a smaller, but more loyal following of anti-immigration enthusiasts, and even if his party is constantly taking sixth place in the polls, he’s damn popular among far-right Canadians.
Also, I feel obligated to mention that Bernier recently shared a satirical Babylon Bee article believing it to be real. It’s not relevant, I just think it’s hilarious.
He ate the Christian Nationalist off-brand Onion.
Anyway, it was no surprise to someone following The Line, an organization that has claimed to have no party affiliation or preference*, that Bernier was still welcomed with open arms.
YOU ARE THE REVOLUTION. From The Line’s website.
The Line’s website is full of general statements of what they’re against. It gives very little actionable information on what they are for. They’re against ‘Tyranny’. They’re against ‘Oppression’. Where exactly does an unapologetically political group fall on the spectrum?
And, more importantly, why isn’t that obvious right off the bat?
Its political leanings are more complicated than most of the groups that it overlaps with. A broad answer is that it falls all over the political spectrum with the largest part falling very far to the right. A more accurate answer might be that it falls wherever you want it to.
The Line establishes itself as being anti-establishment. But is that general position enough to reel in Canadians by the thousands right now? Sure, it could probably sell itself to a portion of Canadians that way, but it didn’t grow so quickly by just being a safe space to complain about government.
Despite their site airing general grievances with the government, its members air some very specific ones: COVID-19 mandates. The Line’s main appeal is that it’s anti-lockdown. It always has been. They’re also mostly anti-mask and anti-vaccine, but that much only becomes obvious when you look past its official positions to the outside world:
“We’re not anti-mask, we just aggressively fighting against wearing them.”
Evidently: almost none of their rally attendees actually wear masks.
‘March for Freedom’ rally on Yonge Street in Toronto, October 2, 2020. Photograph courtesy of Matt MacDwinnell.
Bernier brought one, but chose to use it as a fashion accessory for his neck:
Photograph courtesy of Maxime Bernier’s Facebook Page.
Right now, The Line’s appearance to cater to political fluidity is a huge strength for them. Their absence of mentioning one particular political ideology comes across as being more of a call for unity than most right-wing groups do. It used to also mention that The Line was “working with political parties”, without indicating any in particular.
But, as nonpartisan and anti-authoritarian as The Line appears to be on the outside, there’s a very real risk of Fascism when it comes to any loose far-right movement.
The most popular case study for fascists using the appearance of being somewhat politically fluid to gain traction is probably from the leadership of Unite The Right’s famous Charlottesville rally.
But at this point, almost every fringe right-wing organization uses the same tactic. Even if you’re openly hateful, it’s a lot harder to get people to join your cause when you come across as exclusionary or elitist. Being “for the people, against the government” is a far better sell.
Without knowing any better, I’m not even sure if the general appeal of The Line being against ‘whatever an individual wants it to be’, is even intentionally conservative. I don’t know if there’s a political agenda behind it.
Lockdowns have left Canadians lonely and feeling like their voices are going unheard. I suspect a large fraction of the members joined just to feel like they were a part of something bigger like they were creating change. I don’t know if The Line’s founder had the same thought process, or if it was always meant to be an enabler for extremism.
The unfortunate reality is that now that it’s large enough to be considered a national movement, the origins don’t matter. We need to treat it the same.
Apolitical intentions don’t always lead to apolitical outcomes. Alt-right agitators are famously great at radicalizing the unwilling. They’re even better at it when it is behind closed doors. We like to think of radical ideologies coming to people in the form of traditional communication. Often we imagine fascist rallies being plastered on posters in the streets, or having pamphlets delivered to our front door.
That happens less and less in the age of the internet. Minecraft servers have become more effective recruiting grounds for extremist groups than any pamphlet could be. Facebook is even more effective because it reaches a much wider audience.
Internet proficiency and mental health have become huge factors. Facebook reaches those who might not be used to be lied to in a personal capacity, those who might trust an unsourced meme over the local news.
So, what happens when people from a few different political backgrounds come together to face a broad and immaterial enemy? In cases like The Line, where politics are a central part of the group’s identity but the affiliation to political ideology isn’t, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t really matter what the most rational voices are saying.
What’s important is who’s the loudest. That’s why the far-right is running the show. Bernier’s support confirms this.
The Line calls itself leaderless, which at first glance I thought might not necessarily be a lie, but also wasn’t really the whole truth. I mean, obviously, there must be a group of individuals organizing their rallies and online presence, right?
Screenshot of The Line Canada’s website, citing that they are a leaderless movement.
Turns out it’s just a lie. Their website contradicts itself in other sections and their Facebook page also only ever mentions one guy running the show. His email address with his first name in it is literally underneath the line, “contact the leadership directly at:”.
A screenshot of The Line Canada’s website mentioning their leader’s contact info.
Furthermore, the calls to action on their social media all lead to the same name and contact information as well:
Calling itself a “leaderless movement” was nothing more than an attempt to seem like a grassroots movement. It probably worked.
When QAnon started, it was as political as conspiracy theories got at the time. Most of the named names of secret Satanist paedophiles mentioned by the person who decided to start the prank were either centrist or leftist politicians or public figures, and the entire thing revolved around Trump being the hero of the Q story.
But that didn’t mean that its biggest recruiters would necessarily phrase it that way to convince others that it wasn’t just made up crap. As hard as it is to get people in on a conspiracy to join forces with an establishment party that controls The White House and the Senate, it can be damn easy to get them in on one that portrays the heroes as powerless.
After all, people like to think they’re capable of winning even against the odds. It’s not a challenge when you were winning before you joined the game.
Conspiracy theories don’t often hook people in by telling them to obey authority, they reel them in by encouraging them to rebel against it.
The reality is that the more popular that Q Anon became, the more people accepted it as mainstream conservatism. I suspect The Line will be no different.
I’m not just I’m drawing from the parallels between both fringe internet movements to draw this conclusion. There are some obvious similarities. But, I’m also drawing from the knowledge that there is a huge overlap between Canadian Q Anon followers and The Line.
The Line’s Facebook page proudly displays speeches from anti-mask and anti-vaccine group Hugs Over Masks co-founder and Toronto police darling Chris ‘Sky’. Here’s their founder giving one of The Line’s weekly live updates along with one of the Hugs Over Masks’ Co-founders, who has given me some great feedback on my past writing:
In fact, the groups bounce off of each other quite frequently. The Hugs Over Masks’ mantra isn’t entirely cohesive. It is, without question, primarily a conspiracy movement, focusing its effort not only on being an anti-mask movement but one that does so based on misinformation.
Unlike the base of QAnon followers, the group itself doesn’t necessarily follow one particular narrative of misinformation. Some of their members believe COVID-19 was created in a lab. Some don’t believe it’s real at all.
On September 15th, Hugs Over Masks’ leader even filmed himself explaining that most deaths attributed to Covid-19 were actually caused by obesity (which I’ll confess was a new one for me) and those immune-compromised people should “just get healthy”. Naturally, he still mentioned that Bill Gates hand in the obesity epidemic, because even when it’s not a virus, it still somehow has to be Bill Gates’s fault.
“It’s the same immune-compromised people that have always been susceptible to that. Just, you know, get healthy. The real pandemic, the real pandemic that has to be addressed is obesity. People are dying of diet-related diseases created by the same conglomerates… same Bill Gates invested in Monsanto and everything. else, it’s just, the money is everywhere.”
Although obesity is one of the most common underlying conditions that increase health risks associated with COVID-19, that doesn’t make it the cause of death. Also, and this is more important: People who are obese also deserve to live.
In comparison to its relatives, The Line is more conspiracy-adjacent than conspiracy-driven. Monsanto theories are not as often the root of discontent so much as economic anxiety and mental health.
The broad mantra of The Line seems to come across as more Libertarian than authoritarian at first glance. I’ve mentioned the potential for The Line to become Fascist leaning or at least Fascism-tolerant. But, even if that doesn’t come to pass, it’s still a cause for alarm.
You know that one friend you’ve known for years who was always a little bit of a rebel, but tended to fall deep into subcultures?
To play devil’s advocate, the least harmless way to think of The Line is to think of it as one of those sub-cultural phases. For most of its members, it suits many of the same purposes.
Lockdowns in Canada left all of us at least a little bit lonelier and a little bit angrier. It left a lot of us worse. A lot of people need something to hold on to that lets us stay angry, and for the most part, being part of a loose anti-government movement fills that need.
It also helps fill that need we all have to belong to something bigger.
People have spent the better part of a year isolated from their friends and family, a 20 thousand person new social club can be therapeutic.
The danger lies when it stops being just a phase, and this is what most people, including a lot of journalists, are not getting about The Line.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been loads of media coverage on anti-mask and anti-lockdown rallies. In fact, we as a country are so good at doing them that we’re even exporting our own conspiracy theorists overseas to speak in other countries’ rallies. Of course, our own rallies are going to be covered.
But, that particular news story I just linked was published on September 28th. The Ireland rally itself happened on September 12, and even though Hug Over Masks and The Line both buzzed all about it on social media at the time, very little Canadian coverage actually occurred. That’s a symptom of a larger problem: For the most part, we’re not taking them seriously.
Earlier this month Vancouver had an anti-mask rally that drew thousands, with several different far-right groups proudly showing up to voice their support. From the footage of independent onlookers, it resembled a Trump rally with a Canadian twist. So far as I can tell online, CBC only covered it locally and didn’t give it the full story treatment. Likewise, they covered the massive Toronto protest on the 28th only through the lens of how its star broke quarantine.
Even though last weekend’s follow-up featured a cameo from far-right celebrity darling Maxime Bernier the most popular media coverage of it so far might be from Rebel News. The general pattern of coverage seems to be “scratch the surface, don’t worry about what’s underneath”.
Undoubtedly, there is an ethical dilemma in covering any movement that has an unjust cause and can benefit from the exposure. Journalists don’t want to give movements that could be a dangerous free platform to spread their message with. I’ve been critical of this myself.
That’s why criticism, fact-checking, and balanced scrutiny are needed.
In this regard, Global News did the Vancouver rally justice, which was refreshing. Some independent writers and entertainers are stepping up too. Northern Currents, a Canadian anti-hate platform, has covered the anti-mask movement and its relationship with extremism consistently.
Vancouver comedy Youtubers The Spaghetti Boyz brought attention to some Vancouver rallies by crashing one. Hell, even The Beaverton has acknowledged Hugs Over Masks’ problematic relationship with Toronto police.
All of this means that it shouldn’t be a surprise that The Line has their own “news” program. I mean, what else do you do when you can’t get the exposure they need from the real news, and the only outlets talking about them are either sounding the fascism alarm bell or just treating them like a joke?
Since writing this, The Line has removed the section of their official website that affirms they have no relation to any political party.