Neo-Nazis and QAnon: how Canadian truckers’ anti-vaccine protest was steered by extremists

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Neo-Nazis and QAnon: how Canadian truckers’ anti-vaccine protest was steered by extremists
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Thousands of demonstrators have successfully occupied Canada’s frigid capital for days, and say they plan on staying as long as it takes to thwart the country’s vaccine requirements.

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The brazen occupation of Ottawa came as a result of unprecedented coordination between various anti-vaccine and anti-government organizations and activists, and has been seized on by similar groups around the world.

It may herald the revenge of the anti-vaxxers.

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The so-called “freedom convoy” – which departed for Ottawa on 23 January – was the brainchild of James Bauder, an admitted conspiracy theorist who has endorsed the QAnon movement and called Covid-19 “the biggest political scam in history”. Bauder’s group, Canada Unity, contends that vaccine mandates and passports are illegal under Canada’s constitution, the Nuremberg Code and a host of other international conventions.

Bauder has long been a fringe figure, but his movement caught a gulf stream of support after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last year that truckers crossing the US-Canada border would need to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The supposed plight of the truckers proved to be a compelling public relations angle and attracted an array of fellow travelers.

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Until now, a litany of organizations had protested Canada’s strict public health measures, but largely in isolation. One such group, Hold Fast Canada, had organized pickets of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters, where they claimed that concentration camps had already been introduced in the country.

Another group, Action4Canada, launched legal challenges to mask and vaccine mandates. In one 400-page court filing, they allege that the “false pronouncement of a Covid-19 ‘pandemic’” was carried out, at least in part, by Bill Gates and a “New World (Economic) Order” to facilitate the injection of 5G-enabled microchips into the population.

Both groups are listed as “participating groups” on the Canada Unity website, and sent vehicles and personnel to join the convoy.

Other organizers joined Bauder, including Chris Barber, a Saskatchewan trucker who was fined $14,000 in October for violating provincial public health measures; Tamara Lich, an activist for a fringe political party advocating that Western Canada should become an independent state; Benjamin Dichter, who has warned of the “growing Islamization of Canada”; and Pat King, an anti-government agitator who has repeatedly called for Trudeau to be arrested.

Since they have arrived in Ottawa, the extreme elements of the protest have been visible: neo-Nazi and Confederate flags were seen flying, QAnon logos were emblazoned on trucks and signs and stickers were pasted to telephone poles around the occupied area bear Trudeau’s face, reading: “Wanted for crimes against humanity.”

The official line from Bauder and his co-organizers, however, has remained focused; in a Facebook live broadcast, Bauder instructed his supporters to “stop talking about the vaccine” and instead stick to message of “freedom”.

Such strict message control has attracted mainstream support. Numerous members of the Conservative party, Canada’s official opposition, have come out to meet the protesters. Elon Musk and Donald Trump have both endorsed the convoy. Fox broadcasters Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson have provided glowing updates on the continuing occupation.

Bauder vowed the convoy would camp out in Ottawa until their demands are met, insisting to his followers that a “memorandum of understanding” would force the government’s hand, possibly even triggering fresh elections, if enough people sign.

A Canada Unity organizer went further, saying it would require the Senate to “go after the prime minister” for “corruption” and “fascism”. There is no legal basis for those claims.

King has laid out a more direct plan of action to the occupiers: “What we want to focus on is our politicians, their houses, their locations,” he said in a January Facebook stream. If political pressure doesn’t work, King said, blocking major supply chains “will be later on”.

Soon after, the head of security for Parliament issued an extraordinary warning to Members of Parliament to avoid the protest entirely, for their own safety.

The occupiers have deliberately made life difficult for anyone in Ottawa’s downtown core. Trucks have been laying on their air horns throughout the day, often well into the early morning hours. An Ottawa court granted an injunction Monday afternoon, ordering that the honking must cease.

In the shadow of Parliament, a flatbed truck was converted into a stage – functioning as a speaker’s corner during the day, where far-right politicians and occupiers took the microphone to decry Trudeau and Covid vaccines. At night, the stage functions as a DJ booth for raucous dance parties.

Technology has made the occupation even easier: drivers share information on routes and the best ways to evade police barricades via the walkie talkie app Zello. Organizers in other cities use the secure messaging app Telegram to share information, coordinate messaging and plan solidarity protests.

The occupiers now have the resources to stay for an extended period of time: they have raised more than C$6mthrough various crowdfunding platforms, in cash and Bitcoin, despite having been booted from GoFundMe’s platform after raising over C$10m.

The Ottawa occupation is proof that a few thousand determined protesters can overwhelm police and shut down major cities with enough vehicles and coordination. Solidarity convoys have already shut down the busy Coutts border crossing between Alberta and Montana, strained police resources in Toronto and Quebec City, and activists as far away as Helsinki, Canberra, London, and Brussels have taken not. On the convoy channels, protestors warn this is just the beginning.

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