In its 2021 TE-SAT report, Europol explained that since the beginning of the pandemic “right-wing extremists exploited COVID-19 to support their narratives of accelerationism and conspiracy theories.” Such an exploitation is something that both governments and experts have warned of since the beginning of the pandemic, with state officials in the UK, Germany, and Australia, for example, expressing concerns about extremist individuals using lockdown to spread their propaganda to isolated audiences spending more and more time in front of their screens. Canadians are no exception to this. Indeed, north of the American border there has been an evident online discursive transition whereby young users in particular have become gradually more exposed to right-wing extremist narratives and themes, including antisemitism. Offline, between February and March 2022, Canada’s biggest school board has seen at least six events directly associated with antisemitism: from middle schoolers performing a Nazi salute in front of a Jewish teacher, to a hate-crimes investigation of three separate high schools being spray-painted overnight with the same Nazi symbols. This article focuses on the subreddits established by supporters and members of the Canadian ‘Freedom Convoy’ movement, and illustrates how COVID-19 skepticism and antisemitism intersect in the online space, increasing the chances of far-right radicalisation and offline mobilisation.
The ‘Freedom Convoy’ emerged as a series of protests and blockades in Canada against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions beginning in early 2022. On 22 January 2022, hundreds of vehicles formed convoys from several points and traversed Canadian provinces aiming to converge in Ottawa. In the lead-up to their arrival in Ottawa, it was reported that far-right and white supremacist groups were hoping to capitalise on the protest to bring about violence on Parliament Hill, echoing the 2021 US Capitol attack. Even though many members of the convoy condemned the participation of extremist groups, leading organisers have been associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory, COVID-19 skepticism, and anti-vaxx sentiment, and with anti-LGBTQI+ and Islamophobic hate groups. Additionally, once in Ottawa, some protesters were photographed freely waving Nazi flags at the rally as well as signs comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. The Private Motor Truck Council of Canada noted concern about the convoy’s “racist remarks”, citing the comparisons between the mandates imposed by the Canadian Liberal government to the Nazi and Communist regimes. The Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies denounced the use of Nazi symbols by some of the protesters. Threatening not to leave until COVID-19 restrictions and mandates were repealed, on 14 February Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, allowing the government to take necessary steps to deal with a provincial emergency. These included arresting organisers and protesters, freezing their bank accounts, removing parked vehicles, and dismantling blockades. By 21 February 2022, most of the protesters had been cleared from Ottawa.
This Insight will discuss the online rhetoric of two ‘Freedom Convoy’ groups. The subreddit r/FreedomConvoy2022 is a highly active online community that was founded on 22 January; has around 13.2K members; and claims to stand for “Love, Peace, Unity, Freedom,” welcoming conversations about “convoys, mandates, and the right of bodily autonomy.” Seemingly founded by users in Canada, the group targets both Canadians and Americans who sympathise with the ‘Freedom Convoy’ movement, thus presenting a rather transnational outlook. The second largest group on Reddit centred upon the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is called r/TruckersFreedomParty. With 260 members, this online group was founded a week after r/FreedomConvoy2022. Even though this subreddit cross-posts a lot of the content distributed in r/FreedomConvoy2022, its language is much more aggressive, and its activity seems to be much more dependent on one user in particular, whose posts have a tendency to focus quite a bit on the United States – something that often generates unease among what appear to be Canadian users. The goal to portray the ‘Freedom Convoy’ as a transnational, or Canadian-American, endeavour is here evident. Finally, this group seems to have a clearer political purpose than r/FreedomConvoy2022, that of creating a party that stands directly against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party: “FUCK TRUDEAU and his Party. We are turning the Freedom Convoy 2022 peaceful national uprising into political Truckers Freedom Party of Canada. We are pro-vaxx-choice, pro-freedom, and pro-Constitution.”
Antisemitism and the ‘Freedom Convoy’
It is safe to say that the most common theme appearing in a similar format in both r/FreedomConvoy2022 and r/TruckersFreedomParty is the comparison between COVID-19 mandates and Nazi Germany. The subreddits cross-posted a 4-page letter written by a “patriot residing in the province of Ontario,” addressed to Canada and to the US, that described contemporary Canada as the equivalent of interwar Germany, and Justin Trudeau as Adolf Hitler. The comparison takes place specifically by talking about the “rights and freedoms” that Hitler took away from a “minority of Germans” who had become “scapegoats.” This minority was “accused of being evil, diseased, dangerous, and undeserving.” Eventually, explains the letter, “these undesirables [were] murdered” but “the victims of the Holocaust deserved the same rights and freedoms that [the] majority of Germans enjoyed, regardless of their vaccination status.” In other words, the author of this letter and supporter of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is comparing the suffering of the truck drivers who chose to be in Ottawa to protest against COVID-19 mandates in January 2022 with the systematic and state-sponsored murder of about 6 million Jews over more than 10 years in the interwar period. The letter reflects what Jewish advocacy organisations and human rights experts condemned regarding the convoy, where protesters misappropriated the Star of David to establish a parallel between the Holocaust and present-day “restrictions to our human rights and freedoms” (page 4). We also see the use of the Star of David in the r/FreedomConvoy2022 subreddit, in which the Jewish symbol was presented as an identifier for “not vaxed” as opposed to vaccinated people, shown as Nazis. Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, reacted to such comparisons during the Ottawa protests by saying that “clearly there are a number of people who don’t understand what the Holocaust is about. They don’t understand that their situation is nowhere comparable.” Jedwab, the son of a Holocaust survivor, said that “by making these outrageous and atrocious comparisons” the convoy was “denigrating the meaning and significance of the Holocaust.” Trivialising the Holocaust has been described by experts as a type of “secondary anti-semitism” or “soft-core” Holocaust denial or revisionism, which is the “attempt to deny or trivialize the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany against Jews and others during World War II.” The European Union’s Framework decision on Racism and Xenophobia recommends that denying or grossly trivialising “crimes of genocide” be made “punishable.” The most impactful reference to Trudeau’s Canada being analogous to Hitler’s Nazi Germany shared in both r/FreedomConvoy2022 and r/TruckersFreedomParty is an edited Nazi flag replacing the German swastika with a Canadian maple leaf. In r/FreedomConvoy2022, the post is described as “The proposed new Canadian flag.”
Comparisons between the Nazi state persecution of Jews and the suppression of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ by Canadian law enforcement are also reflected in the many posts that refer to the Ottawa police as the Gestapo, or Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police), which was the political police of Nazi Germany. A short video of the Ottawa police eating pizza in r/FreedomConvoy2022 is described using words like “Tyrant Cops” and “Oppression,” framed by the overall title “The New Gestapo.” A meme with almost 600 votes suggests that the Canadian police is what “real fascism looks like.” Another post includes a photo of Hitler’s Gestapo with a description that reads “Thank you to all our officers for making Ottawa safe again.” This last post is part of multiple fake screenshots of tweets released by an alleged “Ottawa Gestapo” Twitter account. The profile image of this fake account is a version of the Ottawa police logo featuring the Nazi or fascist imperial eagle. One of the false tweets released by the “Ottawa Gestapo” account and shared in r/FreedomConvoy2022 speaks of the truckers as “traitorous”. The terminology here is relevant, as it echoes the Nazi-manufactured “stab-in-the-back” legend, which blamed German Jews for defeat in World War I, accusing them of being “internal traitors.” The legend was widely believed and used to oppress Jews even before Hitler rose to power. The rhetoric suggests further parallels established between ‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters and the persecution of the Jewish community by the Nazi regime.
The associations established between the suppression of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ and the Holocaust merge to create an overtly antisemitic cartoon, or meme, published in r/FreedomConvoy2022. The image depicts Justin Trudeau handing a bag of money to a police officer from a limousine and whispering: “Make the scary honkers go away.” The police officer responds: “Piece of cake, boss!” There wouldn’t be much to the cartoon if it weren’t for the fact that the police officer is wearing a helmet that reads: “Judas Iscariot.” This is an antisemitic reference. The connexion between Jews and money goes back to the biblical writings on apostle Judas Iscariot handing over Jesus Christ to the Romans in exchange for thirty coins. Due to this reference, Jews have been historically blamed for ‘killing Jesus’, an accusation that was used to justify hundreds of years of antisemitic pogroms throughout Europe. It also served to accuse Jews of controlling money at a world level, financing political fluctuations (and revolutions) that could benefit their “wandering” or stateless community until 1948, when the state of Israel was established. For centuries, this idea fed antisemitic conspiracy theories that associated political and financial power to Judaism. These beliefs inspired the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1903, which falsely exposed a Jewish international conspiracy aiming at dominating the world through atheistic communism and revolution, but also through capitalism and global finances. Between the 1920s and the 1930s, the Protocols became a key element of Nazi propaganda, ideology, and program, and at least 23 editions were published by the party. The overarching idea behind the Protocols is the existence of a secret world domination of politics, money, and media by hook-nosed Jewish men.
We find references to the existence of an international world power controlling Trudeau’s government in both r/FreedomConvoy2022 and r/TruckersFreedomParty, with comments like “Globalists vs. The People” in discussions around Trudeau’s “totalitarian behaviour.” It is worth noting that in this case the populist rhetoric, traditionally characterised by the dichotomy of ‘us’ (the people) vs. ‘them’ (elites), incorporates a ‘third element’ to the anti-elitist narrative: the imagined Jew. Among the ‘Freedom Convoy’ subreddits, the most interesting meme echoing conspiracy theories about a global elite exploiting ‘the people’ rooted in antisemitic prejudice is shared by the subreddit r/TruckersFreedomParty. The meme presents a version of the Freedom for Humanity temporary mural by Mear One, originally painted on a wall in Hanbury Street, London in 2012. The mural depicts men wearing business suits seated on the backs of bent over naked figures around a table, playing a Monopoly-like board game that rests. Overseeing the scene is an Eye of Providence surrounded by images of industry (capitalism, modernity) and protest. Sitting around the table, a man has a full beard, and is counting money. Other antisemitic stereotypes are observed in the hooked noses, which were used by Nazi Germany to demonize the Jews. The image of human bodies (‘the people’) being crushed by Jewish power was also used by Nazi Germany. Finally, the Eye of Providence has been associated with the global secret societies Illuminati and Freemasonry, also traditionally linked to Judaism and broadly used by right-wing conspiracy theorist and antisemites. Not surprisingly, the image was strongly criticised for using antisemitic tropes and imagery, including stereotypical depictions of Jews, references to finance and the monetary and Masonic associations of the Eye of Providence. In spite of this, the post in by r/TruckersFreedomParty even kept the title of the original mural to describe the meme: “All we have to do is stand up and their little game is over!”
In the ‘Freedom Convoy’ subreddits, antisemitic conspiracy theories about a secret world power often intersect with COVID-19 misinformation. A video entitled “The Great Reset Is Real” posted by the r/TruckersFreedomParty illustrates this. The video features United Conservative Party leader in the Canadian province of Alberta, Jason Kenney, criticising Klaus Schwab, the founder and Chief Executive of the World Economic Forum. Schwab referred to the “Great Reset” as the opportunity to make the world better and more resilient, to capitalise on the accelerating change caused by COVID-19 to introduce new policies and a new type of international governance. This statement feeds the “Great Reset” conspiracy theory. First spread in the US by adherents warning that “global elites will use the pandemic to advance their interests and … destroy American sovereignty,” the conspiratorial version of the “Great Reset” proposes that the same left-leaning political elites that plan for the “Great Reset” actually manufactured COVID-19 and used lockdown restrictions not to curb the spread of the virus, but to deliberately bring about economic collapse and a communist world government-run for the benefit of powerful capitalists. The theory resonates with the old antisemitic trope that Jews are behind both communism and capitalism, causing revolution and recessions while accumulating power and capital. In r/FreedomConvoy2022, memes are shared to suggest that Justin Trudeau works for Schwab to bring about the “Great Reset” in Canada through liberal politics or even communism. An image depicts the hierarchy of the World Economic Forum, at the top of which there is Klaus Schwab, with Justin Trudeau being directly below him together with Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. The bottom of the pyramid is composed of members of the Canadian Liberal Party. Another example is an image depicting Trudeau as a black-faced baby waving a red bra/communist flag and being held by Klaus Schwab: “Klaus is so proud of little Castro Jr.” This last reference suggests a connection between Trudeau and Cuban president Fidel Castro, whose Marxist–Leninist administration oversaw human rights abuses, the exodus of many Cubans, and the impoverishment of the country’s economy.
One last rhetorical symbol that signals the influence of antisemitism in online conversations among supporters of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is Pepe the Frog. Originally created by American artist and cartoonist Matt Furie in 2005, Pepe the Frog was popularised by the alt-right, which used it as an Internet meme that “centered on racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted themes.” Pepe the Frog has become a symbol of white supremacism and is often utilised by the far right for its ability to use humor and irony to inspire violence. In addition to memes featuring Pepe the Frog, in both r/FreedomConvoy2022 and r/TruckersFreedomParty we also find memes incorporating the alt-right cartoon “Feelsman meme,” a black-and-white cartoon man who is the victim of Pepe the Frog’s pranks. We also find versions of Pepe the Frog originally designed by the alt-right, like the ‘Honkler’. On 4 April 2019, Right Wing Watch reported that users of the online message board 4chan, which is popular among white nationalists, had been trying to popularise a character called ‘Honkler’, or Pepe the Frog dressed as a clown. Since then, online antisemites in particular started building upon the Honkler imagery when citing news that confirmed their worldview: “the illogic of a liberal, non-racist society.” They would describe that world as a “clown world” (a tag filter used in r/FreedomConvoy2022) or simply write “honk honk” (clown horn sound effect), a chant which now dominates the Internet as the slogan of the ‘Freedom Convoy’. Many online users might not be aware that “honk honk” had been previously used by the alt-right, and used by many as a stand-in for ‘Heil Hitler’, or its counterpart ‘88’, which is widespread among online neo-Nazi and alt-right circles. But those familiar with the alt right, or with “the depths of online hate speech,” do. It is worth noting the image below, posted by r/FreedomConvoy2022. In it, Canada and the US are represented as soldiers or warriors whose faces have been replaced by Pepe the Frog and the “Honkler,” indicating that transnational violent mobilisation based on alt-right hope for change is desirable. Moreover, the soldiers are actually Germanic soldiers wearing equipment decorated with Valknut runes, symbols widely used by those endorsing neo-Nazi ideology. In successfully incorporating its own symbology into the ‘Freedom Convoy’ discourse, the alt-right has been able to appropriate the movement’s demands for liberty and individual rights for its extremist purposes.
Even though supporters of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada have denied being influenced by neo-Nazism and antisemitism, it is evident that such an influence exists. The abundance of antisemitic material generated by the two largest subreddit ‘Freedom Convoy’ groups is proof that the far right is successful at using these online communities as spaces where frustrations and anxieties associated with COVID-19 can be combined with harmful rhetoric targeting ethnic minorities. It is too early to say whether the increase in antisemitic incidents in the weeks following the offline mobilisation of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is a consequence of the growing presence of antisemitic discourse among these groups online. It is not too late, however, to accept that relationship might exist.