Argument

Coronavirus Conspiracies Give Boost to Canada’s Far-Right

Anti-Chinese sentiment and a public health backlash have vaulted Hong Kong-born Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam into the firing line for Canada’s extremists.

The Jacques-Cartier bridge in Montreal
The Jacques-Cartier Bridge in Montreal is seen on April 11, illuminated in the colors of the rainbow as a sign of hope and in support of victims of the coronavirus. ERIC THOMAS/AFP via Getty Images
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In Toronto, scores of people have gathered since late April for regular anti-lockdown protests, some clustered around signs calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hanging. In Vancouver, protesters recently descended on a hospital, demanding to see what they insisted were empty wards. Anti-China rhetoric is salient in many of these rallies. A woman was filmed ripping up a Chinese flag at one of the Toronto demonstrations while a fellow protester cheered her on: “China is an evil empire! Rip that up! Rip that up!”

Canada’s 10 provinces have been on lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, with each province and territory independently declaring a public health emergency in March. Protests such as Toronto’s and Vancouver’s have become common around the country as conspiracy theories, anti-China sentiment, and white supremacy collide, with dangerous results. Racist and lunatic theories are moving from the fringe to the mainstream.

The global depression has not spared Canada, which lost 2 million jobs in April. Unemployment is now up to 13 percent, the highest rate since 1982. This has given more ammunition for the demonstrators, who include both those irate about the impact of lockdown on the economy and more radical groups who interpret the pandemic as part of a global plot by China, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations to control Canadians.

International, “globalist” organizations have long been favorite targets of Canada’s far-right, and the pandemic provides fresh opportunity to attack these bodies with newly concocted narratives. Analysts have tracked this conspiracy-theory-fueled worldview for months—but it’s now become a fixture in Canada’s national conversations on the pandemic.

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Adherents of these theories have fixed their crosshairs on the governing Liberal Party. Their favorite target is the chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, who was born in Hong Kong and is of Chinese descent. Tam had a prominent role in Canada’s responses to the SARS, swine flu, and Ebola outbreaks and has now been thrust into the limelight as the government’s top COVID-19 advisor. Her presence has given Canada’s far-right the chance to rally together against a common, identifiable enemy.

Tam’s high-profile position and, more importantly, ethnicity help conspiracy theorists string together their hatred for Trudeau, “globalist” organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations, and China—cast even by mainstream voices as Western civilization’s new top threat.

Many on the far-right allege that Tam is a longtime Chinese spy, sent to rise through the public health bureaucracy to one day use the coronavirus scare as a way to increase Chinese influence. They wonder whether her loyalties can really be vouched for, and warn that she may import the Chinese government’s heavy-handed ideologies and methods at the expense of Canadians’ rights. They ask what the odds are that the disease originated in China and that Canada’s top health advisor is also Chinese.

General weariness over China’s influence on the WHO and the way Beijing initially handled the Wuhan outbreak has rightly generated much debate. Members of the Liberal Party are constantly attacked by the opposition in Parliament for relying too much on China’s official COVID-19 data. Yet this lively debate is too easily appropriated as a launching pad for racist conspiracy theories. The very fact that criticisms of Beijing’s policy and influence can hardly be separated nowadays from rumors of stealthy Chinese biological warfare demonstrates just how pervasive unchecked conspiracy theories have become in a time of heightened public anxiety and frustration. It’s the perfect time for savvy demagogues (or even more amateur ones) to try to cash in.

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An inability or unwillingness to separate legitimate criticism from racist conspiracy theories has allowed the latter to move from the fringe to the mainstream in a way that been previously rare in Canada. For some in Canada’s Conservative Party, pandering to a party base prone to Sinophobic conspiracy theories is now a viable way of getting noticed. On April 21, Derek Sloan, an opposition Conservative Party member of Parliament, asked on camera: “Does [Tam] work for Canada or for China?” A freshman member of Parliament who is also running for his party’s leadership, Sloan characterized Tam as a product of the WHO, itself portrayed as an irresponsible body that “serves the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China (CCP).”

While a subsequent backlash forced Sloan to insist that his question was “rhetorical,” he has also said he does “stand by it.” Conservative Party leader Andrew initially failed to condemn Sloan and called accusations of dual loyalty “not appropriate” only after days of mounting public pressure. That momentary silence from a federal leader deftly illustrated how the line between fringe conspiracy theories and actual parliamentary business can easily be blurred.

Canada’s right-wing politicians are increasingly resorting to racist dog-whistles. Ahead of a general election last fall, Scheer ripped a page from U.S. President Donald Trump’s script on border policy to warn of MS-13 gang members entering Canada. He also played into conspiracy theories of a globalist plot to erode Canadian border sovereignty when he denounced Trudeau’s signing of the 2018 U.N. Global Compact for Migration.

Canada has long had a far-right, but the idea of whipping it into a voting bloc seemed far-fetched before Trump. His win inspired some Canadian politicians to try and build their own anti-immigrant base. They’ve had limited success, but the emboldened xenophobic dog-whistling never left Canadian politics. Fringe groups such as the neo-Nazi Canadian Nationalist Party and thuggish far-right gangs such as La Meute and Blood and Honour have become more active on the margins of Canadian life.

Trump’s success in rallying a loyal electoral base has always rested substantially on his ability to use and affirm conspiracy theories, whether it be “birtherism,” a vaguely-defined “Obamagate,” or anti-vaccine claims. Right-wing Canadian politicians have been trying to copy him ever since he won; Sloan is just the latest example.

And much like in the United States, the proliferation of pandemic-related conspiracy theories are taking a toll on Canada’s national conversations.

For example, just this January, Canada’s top public health agency was forced to publicly deny the conspiracy theory that Chinese spies secretly developed the virus on Canadian soil. A mainstream news report about two Chinese scientists getting kicked out of a high-level government lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was mischaracterized on Twitter by a popular American hedge fund manager and commentator as: “Chinese spy team were recently removed from a Level 4 Infectious Disease facility in Canada for sending pathogens to the Wuhan facility.” The tweet went viral and spun further conspiracy theories that got so much traction on social media that the Public Health Agency of Canada had to officially deny them. Similarly, the fringe but officially registered far-right Cultural Action Party in the province of British Columbia is pushing the theory that China invented the virus to attack Western civilization.

It’s becoming harder and harder to disentangle conspiracy theories from everyday discussions on the pandemic. Far-right groups and voices once obsessed with the apocalyptic prospect of being “replaced” by Muslim hordes performing “demographic jihad” against the West are now speaking of China’s multipronged “demographic imperialism.” (Canada is particularly susceptible to ethnicity-focused attacks, given its large numbers of Chinese-Canadians—about 5 percent of the population—and Chinese residents.) The coronavirus and Tam are just new tools of the “Chinese ‘silent invasion’” into Canada and Western civilization.

A tireless contributor to this “silent invasion” rhetoric is Ricardo Duchesne, a former professor at one of Canada’s major universities who took early retirement last year after more than 100 of his colleagues jointly denounced his white supremacist writings and academic dishonesty.

Duchesne has long been sounding the alarm on China’s supposed incursion into the West. He speaks regularly on campuses and is a regular guest on popular far-right platforms. He’s appeared on the pro-eugenics Stefan Molyneux’s YouTube show several times, pontificating on subjects such as the “ethnocide of Euro-Canadians.” Since the pandemic, Duchesne has used his blog—influential among far-right circles—to promote the idea that Tam’s background and expertise is all a hoax and that it’s “Odd that Canada’s Chief Medical Officer is a Chinese woman born in Hong Kong.”

Canada’s far-right has tried hard in recent years to shift the country’s Overton window so it can break through into mainstream electoral politics. Its main tools for creating and galvanizing a potential electoral base have been mass immigration, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. That has mostly led nowhere as the Liberals won the general election again last fall.

But the far-right’s adoption of pandemic-related conspiracy theories has developed a limited political subculture into a real public health hazard. This time, the economy is in the gutter and people from all walks of life are looking for a scapegoat. Many people might seek out xenophobic explanations for what’s happening. And if someone with more savvy than Sloan can tap into this energy by channeling racist conspiracy theories, then the ensuing frenzy might have a lasting effect on Canadian politics.

Steven Zhou is an investigative journalist based in Toronto focusing on national security and far-right issues. Twitter: @stevenzzhou

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