An anti-mask protester holds up a sign. (Photo by Jeff Dean / AFP)
The pandemic was perhaps the best thing that has happened to Lamont Daigle in a long time.
The tiered marketing salesman made a name for himself as one of Canada’s leading anti-maskers, campaigning against measures being taken to stop the spread of COVID-19. The logo for the line, one of the brands he led, was featured in anti-lockdown rallies around the world and he was loved by a large group of conspiratorial people.
But then the attacks began.
They came from everywhere. Popular right-wing YouTuber Ezra Levant accused Daigle of being an undercover narcot. He reportedly tried to push the anti-mask movement towards violence. A far-right website with a harsh Blogspot circa 2004 aesthetic declared he was a pedophile sympathizer (a major sin in the conspiratorial world).
Surprisingly, the attacks did not come from the media or anti-anti-maskers (although mud was hurled from that direction as well), but from other anti-maskers. The line partially split off from the broader movement and disappeared from several important rallies. Several popular but private anti-mask Facebook pages have routinely destroyed Daigle and other line leaders.
As a result, Daigle’s appearances on far-right and conspiratorial livestreams and YouTube shows have slowed, as has the overwhelming engagement he and the sites once received on social media for the line.
But Daigle said he wasn’t worried. “False information doesn’t concern me,” he said in an email to VICE World News, accusing the attack of a malicious external source, not anti-maskers.
“What you consider to be infighting is not really infighting. They are external attacks from groups that are not part of our movement, ”he said.
If the call is actually from inside the house, it wouldn’t be the first time a marginalized group is looking for their own carotid artery. Be it militias, neo-Nazi avant-garde, street-fighting organizations or just organized conspiracy theorists – the only thing leaders hate most of all are each other, said Kurt Phillips, a longtime researcher on the Canadian right.
“Everyone has exactly the perfect idea of how things are to be done. And of course, when people disagree, it leads to fighting, ”Phillips, who works with Canada’s anti-hate network, told VICE World News. “It’s fun to watch, but (the breaking) is also unsettling in that you’d almost rather have a large group to keep an eye on.”
While the groups that march and organize may all show up at the same rally, they may do so while allied with a variety of groups (no doubt organized on Facebook by a conspiracy theorist who shares false information).
“An outside perspective would see the movement as a movement, but that’s not the case,” Daigle said. “There are many moving parts and groups that are concerned with their own goals and their own message.”
According to Dan Collen, an independent journalist covering the movement, a split in the anti-masking movement was inevitable. “The leaders made promises whose fulfillment could never be proven,” he said. This includes some leaders promising a rally of 100,000 if fewer than a hundred show up, or resorting to their lies and conspiracy theories.
“Many of the leaders promised their supporters victories in litigation that never could have happened,” he told VICE World News. “(They) told them misinterpretations of lies in Canadian law that followers gradually turn out to be false when tested.”
In Canada, the groups, many of which emerged from the same large and amorphous group, have slowly but surely broken apart. Some members have formed their own smaller, more niche-oriented “groups”; others try to get people to embrace a personality cult.
In one case, Dan Oke of Booth 4 Thee told VICE World News earlier this year that he abandoned his group because of the angry tactics of the anti-mask group in Dundas Square, a location in downtown Toronto where was worked, did not like a focus for the anti-mask movement in Ontario. Others, like a leader on the west coast, broke off with other groups because he was offended that they were organizing a rally at the same location.
Drew, an anti-fascist researcher who publishes a newsletter about the anti-lockdown community, has been following the anti-mask community for over a year. On Twitter, he has recorded the various struggles including allegations that grifting and leaders are members of the Freemasons, battles over trademarks and logos, and disputes over whether the presence of right-wing and racist figures in the movement should be welcomed.
Bad press plagued the anti-mask movement from the start. The negative media attention has only increased with the inclusion of far-right personalities like Kevin J. Johnston – best known for failed mayoral runs, hate crime charges, and the loss of a massive false and racist testimony lawsuit against a Toronto restaurateur – and others long standing right-wing extremists who take on leadership roles. Arguments over whether or not to accept these numbers have fueled even more disputes.
When conspiracy theorists fight, conspiracies must arise. This includes claims that they are funded by bogeymen like George Soros or, as is the case with Daigle, claims that he is an undercover cop trying to discredit the movement. Even Chris Saccoccia, the closest thing to international celebrity, was recently dubbed “Psyop” after posting an incredibly bizarre video claiming he was in charge of the banking system.
Drew said the far-right old guard in Canada was immediately “suspicious or angry” with these new anti-lockdown activists. Before COVID, the leaders and influencers would barely be able to bring more than 25 people together at a rally, but the anti-lockdown and anti-mask leaders could gather a gathering of hundreds and get positive media coverage.
“Right-wing extremists are used to delegitimizing protests they don’t like with conspiracy theories, all of which they paid for from Soros or other foreign philanthropists,” said Drew, who, for fear of his last name, refused to want reprisal. “So it is natural for them to do the same with those who are on their own side when there is a feud; it is habit.”
Despite all the fighting, the experts agreed that the anti-lockdown and anti-mask movement will not go away. Just a week ago, the church was holding massive rallies across Canada.
“The fact that the movement can easily be broken down into smaller groups is evident that it is no longer a fringe political movement and that it is now a popular set of values and beliefs,” said Collen. “I don’t think these divisions will affect the numbers as much as others who are concerned about the anti-mask movement hope it could.”
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