Montreal, Canada – Throngs of angry protesters, hurling epithets and denouncing coronavirus vaccines and lockdown measures, are becoming a fixture at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election campaign stops.
In London, Ontario on Monday, gravel was thrown at Trudeau from a crowd of demonstrators, many of whom held signs for the far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC) as he was getting back onto his campaign bus.
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It was the latest rally of what Trudeau has dubbed “anti-vaxxer mobs” to interrupt the Liberal Party leader’s campaign events ahead of the September 20 vote.
Barbara Perry, a professor at Ontario Tech University and director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, said anger at Trudeau – who last month triggered the snap election two years ahead of schedule – has been building for years among right-wing groups in Canada.
These groups, emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States to spread their racist and misogynistic views, more recently have seized on mainstream anxiety around COVID-19, she told Al Jazeera. That has combined with discontent over the Trudeau government’s pandemic policies to fuel rising anger.
“It’s really anti-Trudeau; it’s not anti-Liberal, it’s not just anti-state, it really is almost ad hominem attacks on Trudeau,” Perry said about the recent rallies, describing Trudeau as a “lightning rod” for angry right-wing protesters.
Far-right groups have been able to co-opt and exploit mainstream concerns around the coronavirus “and weave them into their own narrative”, she added.
“There are multiple intersecting sentiments coalescing and it is a loose coalition, it appears that there’s no sort of central organising force [behind the recent protests]. It’s a bunch of individuals connected by those anxieties and connected by the targeting of Trudeau.”
While it is unclear what motivated each of the protesters on Monday, footage from the event showed groups of demonstrators waving signs for the PPC, a far-right party that has no seats in parliament and is polling at less than 5 percent.
“No vaccine passports, no more lockdowns,” some of those signs read. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which monitors far-right groups, also said two “known white nationalists” were in the crowd.
“Let me be very clear and state the obvious first and foremost: it is absolutely unacceptable that people be throwing things and endangering others at a political rally,” Trudeau told reporters in Montreal on Tuesday morning, describing the incident in London as “absolutely unacceptable”.
The Liberal leader described the protesters shouting epithets at him, his supporters, police officers and journalists as “anti-vaxxer mobs”, and he added that healthcare and other front-line workers in Canada have faced similar harassment. “Nobody should be getting that kind of intimidation or endangerment that these angry mobs are putting forward,” Trudeau said.
Experts have warned for months that coronavirus conspiracy theories were spreading at alarming rates in Canada and could pose a public health risk, while anti-lockdown protests have taken place in various Canadian cities.
Here's the video of stones being thrown towards the Prime Minister while he was leaving his campaign stop in London, Ontario this evening pic.twitter.com/MNOVHIKMiY
— Sarah Sears (@iamSas) September 6, 2021
Canada has inoculated much of its population against COVID-19, but the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has raised concerns of a fourth wave, prompting some provinces to announce plans to impose vaccine passport systems for entry into restaurants, bars, gyms and other indoor public places.
Trudeau has said he plans to mandate coronavirus vaccines for all federal employees, while also announcing that passengers wanting to travel on aeroplanes and trains in Canada would be required to show proof of vaccination.
Anti-vaccine protesters also rallied outside Canadian hospitals in recent weeks to denounce mandatory vaccinations and other measures.
“The healthcare workers who have worked tirelessly for months on end are being bullied and harassed for doing their jobs. This is wrong and unacceptable – full stop. We are in a health crisis of unprecedented proportion,” the presidents of the Canadian Medical Association and Ontario Medical Association, Katharine Smart and Adam Kassam, said in a statement last week.
Alison Meek, a history professor at King’s University College and a specialist on conspiracy theories and extremism, said the global anti-vax movement is evolving and “melding with a much darker, a much more violent, strain of anti-government” sentiment.
“You’re starting to see that real dark underbelly, and I think that’s what you’re seeing with Trudeau. He has come out in favour obviously of vaccines, of mandatory vaccines, of talking about vaccine passports, and this seems to have tapped into that anger,” Meek told Al Jazeera.
Late last month, Trudeau cancelled a rally about 50km (31 miles) from Toronto because angry protests prompted security concerns. Kyle Seeback, a Conservative Party candidate, later said some of his supporters attended the rallies and were “no longer welcome” on his campaign.
Canada’s opposition party leaders this week denounced the gravel-throwing in London.
“It is not acceptable to throw objects at anyone. Ever. No matter how angry you are. And, it’s never ok to try to intimidate people who don’t agree with you – or the media. Enough,” New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted.
Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole also condemned the incident as “disgusting”. “Political violence is never justified and our media must be free from intimidation, harassment, and violence,” he said on Twitter.
But Meeks said those disavowals do not do much “because that crowd and that ideology has taken on a life of its own” – and she warned of the possibility of violent attacks against healthcare workers. “Because once you’ve let that genie out of the bottle, how do you put it back in?”
Perry also said “there’s a very, very strong possibility” that things will get worse. “We started with rocks, gravel, being thrown at Trudeau [on Monday] in London. What’s the next level after that? What gets thrown next?”
The recent incidents along the campaign trail are very much a part of Canada, Perry added, pointing to the fact that women as well as Black and Indigenous politicians in particular regularly face racist and misogynistic vitriol and threats of violence both online and offline.
“This has become Canada,” she said. “After the London murders, politicians kept saying, ‘This is not our Canada, this is not our Canada’, but it is – because it happened here – and we have to come to grips with that.
“We have to rise out of our complacency and recognise first of all that that is our Canada, that we are grounded in [a] white settler, white privilege, mentality and that will continue to frame our responses – or our lack of response if you will, to these sorts of trends.”