Jordan: By now, you probably know about QAnon. If you listen to this show regularly, you know that the American conspiracy theory is spreading around the world, including into Canada, but maybe you still haven’t wrestled with the real world consequences of that. And I don’t blame you because they are not pleasant to think about.
Clip: Police in droves, Rideau Hall’s wrought iron gates smashed by a truck. Police also say the man was armed. A source telling CBC News he had a long gun and brought a note with him. Though the prime minister and Governor General have residences nearby, officials say neither family was home overnight.
Jordan: Here’s the thing, though. The man who broke onto the Rideau Hall grounds looking for Justin Trudeau isn’t the only Canadian recently arrested for threatening politicians. There’s at least a handful of others, especially in Quebec. And here’s one other thing. A lot of these conspiracy theories come from QAnon, but not all of them come from the right wing.
Clip: Authorities have arrested a woman suspected of sending a letter that contained the poison ricin to President Donald Trump. The package was screened and detected before it was delivered to the White House. Authorities say they arrested the woman as she tried to enter the United States from Canada at a border crossing in New York state. She was allegedly carrying a gun at the time of her arrest. US prosecutors plan to bring charges against her.
Jordan: So what’s going on in Canada and specifically in Quebec? There’s not a ton of political unrest in our country right now, so what’s driving these threats and even these attacks on elected leaders? And what’s the cure? If there is one. Because all signs point to this getting ugly fast.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Jonathan Monpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Hello, Jonathan.
Jonathan: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: My first question for you is, can you tell me about Philippe Côté? Who is he and what did he do?
Jonathan: Phillipe Côté is a 47-year-old trucker who lives in the Quebec City area and, in May, he placed a phone call to premier Francois Legault’s riding office in L’Assomption, Quebec. He called the office around 10 o’clock at night. He left a message to the effect that he was unhappy with Legault’s handling of the pandemic. He regretted voting for Legault. And then he warned Legault that his days were numbered. A few hours later, Côté called back. This time, he was much angrier, was upset, began swearing, and he uttered a series of death threats against the province’s public health director, Horacio Arruda, and among the threats was that he intended to acquire a weapon and shoot Arruda.
Jordan: Where did he get the idea that the province was lying about COVID and all the rest of this stuff?
Jonathan: So that’s a really interesting question. So what we know happened afterwards is that, following that message, people who worked in an Legault’s office, they alerted the provincial police and they were able to track Côté’s location. He was apparently in, he was a trucker, so he was in the United States, on work reasons. He placed the phone call from quite near a gun store. That alarmed authorities. And so they placed an alert on his truck. So when he came back into Canada, border officials searched his truck. They didn’t find any weapons, but they did find several pieces of paper on which were written conspiracy theories. And his lawyer told reporters when he made a court appearance later on that Côté was somebody who was kind of quite distraught by the public health regulations and turned to the internet for answers. And so, the kind of portrait that we have of him is somebody who kind of went down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, as he was trying to articulate his anger and his confusion over what the public health rules were regarding truckers.
Jordan: So listen, if it was just Côté, we probably wouldn’t be talking to you today, but how often is this happening in Quebec in particular? Because you compiled quite a few reports and it was a little startling.
Jonathan: Yeah, that’s right. So we have at least four other people who have been arrested for making threats either to Legault or Arruda or other public figures. What stands out from these four are that their social media profiles, in particular their Facebook posts, all suggest that they have been engaged in conspiracy thinking. Several of them have expressed support for conspiracy theories related to QAnon, the kind of wild conspiracy movement, I guess you could call it, in the United States that believes that Donald Trump is fighting a war against the deep state, which is composed of a secret child sex trafficking ring. So that is kind of the extreme end of this conspiracy thinking. But we also know that Quebec provincial police have interviewed several other people who have uttered threats and who also have engaged in conspiracy thinking. And in fact, Quebec provincial police indicated the they, since the pandemic began, they’ve noticed almost 400% increase in online threats directed at politicians in the province.
Jordan: Do we have any idea how serious those threats are, and maybe just especially the ones in which people were arrested?
Jonathan: So of the ones where people were arrested, so far, we don’t really know how serious they are, if people intended to carry out with violence. We do know from people who’ve studied the QAnon movement in the United States that there, several people have been radicalized to the point of actually carrying out violence. Probably the best known example is the Pizzagate scandal, where somebody went into a pizzeria believing it was a secret layer for sex trafficking. Of course it wasn’t. And discharged a weapon several times. So the concern though, in Quebec, is that the kind of online threats will potentially spill over into offline violence. And so, while these individuals who’ve been arrested may not have been at that stage in the radicalization, amongst experts, there is this concern that potentially this kind of behavior will lead to something much more violent.
Jordan: Where does the pandemic kind of enter into this because you touched on, a minute ago, that the levels have been rising since COVID began. Is it cause and effect or what do we know about that?
Jonathan: That’s a tough question to answer with any certainty. A lot of the experts I’ve spoken to point out that the pandemic is a time that, all of us are kind of affected by it equally. It’s confusing, we’re doing things that are strange to us, we’re wearing masks. So you know, that’s stuff we never thought we would do just a year ago. That kind of social environment, experts say, often leads to conspiracy thinking. It has in the past and we’re seeing it again at the moment. I think what is particularly alarming though, for experts is that you have the pandemic, but QAnon, as this conspiracy movement, which I spoke about earlier, obviously, it preexists the pandemic and its popularity preexists the pandemic. So once you kind of add a widespread conspiracy theory to a social condition that lends itself to even more conspiracy thinking, you have a perfect storm, if you will, for explaining the kind of rise in the popularity of this kind of thinking. And of course, for people who are searching for answers in this very confusing time, conspiracy thinking, it seems to provide very easy solutions, right? It’s black and white answers. There are specific individuals who are to blame for the situation. When the real answers can be much harder to digest. The science is evolving. What we’re supposed to do or not do on any given days is changing. It’s in flux. And so in that context, conspiracy theories can be quite appealing for people who are distraught and looking for answers.
Jordan: So it’s funny that we’re having this conversation today, because when we first reached out to book you for this show, I assumed we’d only be talking about the conspiracy theories that emanate from the right wing. And, you know, that’s where QAnon is associated and it all seemed like it kind of fit together. And then, over the weekend, a Quebec woman was arrested at the border allegedly having sent a letter containing the poison ricin in an attempt to kill US president Donald Trump. So this is, I mean, while QAnon itself might be a right wing problem, the fact that people are getting these theories from the very fringes of the media landscape is a bigger problem than any one side of the spectrum. And I wonder if you have any idea of the scale of that in Quebec, of the level of public belief in conspiracy theories or mistrust in the mainstream media who are providing the complicated answers that you mentioned.
Jonathan: We actually have a pretty good handle on the extent to which conspiracy thinking has penetrated Quebec, or the way Quebecers think about the pandemic. And that’s because we’ve had a couple of polls, over the last few months and they all kind of have reached similar conclusions that we’re looking at somewhere around 20% of the population that believes, in some sort of conspiracy see about, about the pandemic
Jordan: That’s a huge number!
Jonathan: It’s a fairly sizable number and, you know, there was a political scientist who was marvelling at it, like, 20%, that’s bigger than some political parties in the province, what they get in an election. So yeah, it’s a very sizable number. And what’s interesting, too, is the age range. So this is not older people. This is younger people, people aged 18 to 59. The Public Health Research Institute in the province conducted a study that found that over 23% of people believe that the virus was manufactured in a lab, which of course isn’t true. But when they drill down even further, they found younger people were more inclined to believe this conspiracy theory. And people who are out of work or had lost revenues, people without university degrees were all part of that demographic that was more inclined to believe in this conspiracy theory.
Jordan: I guess that speaks to what you were talking about earlier with the people who don’t have answers for why things are happening to them.
Jonathan: Exactly. These conspiracy theories are really kind of, I don’t want to say powerful, but what they’re designed to do, I think, in a way, is to channel people’s anger. The rhetoric they use is that Quebec’s leaders are criminals. That they need to be unseated. That this is an egregious assault on their liberties, you know, being required to wear masks in stores and on public transit is akin to a dictatorship. And so, when you’re using language like that, I mean, it’s really an emotional appeal that you’re making to people who don’t like the changes that the pandemic has forced upon our society.
Jordan: When we’re talking about conspiracy theories and I guess, Q Anon in particular, I think most of us consider it as something that emanates from America and spreads to Canada, to the rest of the world like that. But how much of this stuff that we’re seeing in Quebec comes from inside the province? Are they just consuming American conspiracies or are there some originating in Quebec?
Jonathan: So here, I’ll tell you about this figure in Quebec, who I think is key to understanding how the QAnon conspiracy theory has made it’s way into our so-called distinct society here. And so this is a figure goes by the name Alexis Cossette-Trudel. He broadcasts under the name Radio Quebec. So this is his broadcast outfit, which is essentially just a Facebook page and a YouTube channel. And he, I would say, is probably the leading figure who translates QAnon conspiracy theories into, not only French, but into a Quebec cultural context. He’s an interesting figure in the sense that he’s somebody who, his parents were convicted FLQ terrorists.
Jonathan: His parents were involved in the end of the kidnapping of James Cross. He was born while his parents were an exile. And interestingly, there was a recent profile of him in Ledevoir newspaper, which mentioned that his father, again, a convicted terrorist wants nothing to do with his son, the conspiracy theorist, because he’s worried that he gives the family a bad name.
Jonathan: Cossette-Trudel is somebody who did a PhD in religious studies for a while, was involved in the Parti Quebecois politics for a brief time. And then about four or five years ago began to attach himself to the Quebec far right movement, got involved in the far right media channels that existed in Quebec. And then in 2018, he starts his own broadcast unit from his home. This is what’s called Radio Quebec. And he begins by being very pro-Trump, but also kind of rehashing many of the xenophobic, Islamophobic rhetoric that is commonly heard in the far right in Quebec. And then the pandemic comes along. When the pandemic comes along, he has between 20 and 30 thousand YouTube followers. He now has more than 110,000 YouTube followers. So his popularity has really taken off. He’s interviewed on fairly mainstream radio stations in Quebec, which kind of have added to his legitimacy, all the while spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, that it’s a manufactured crisis, that it’s not lethal. And so he’s somebody who has kind of surged into the limelight on the pandemic and using these kind of conspiracy theories, which are quite dangerous.
Jordan: I hadn’t even thought, I confess, about the need to translate QAnon into French for a Quebec audience, but that’s a really good point. Can the police or government actually do anything about this before it becomes like a serious threat to a politician or a public figure? Or is that kind of the only place they can step in?
Jonathan: So I think what’s interesting if you look at just the arrests that I were able to track, and that’s five arrests in a relatively short period of time between May and early August. And so that I think shows to me that the provincial police are taking this quite seriously. I think there was a period of time where the internet was really a Wild West, where things you said on your Facebook page, no matter how extreme they were, would never invite a visit from police. But now we’re seeing that the provincial police, certainly in some cases are arresting people, and in other cases, at least interviewing, are going to interrogate people who have made threatening comments online, presumably with the intention of verfiying the potential for violence. So I think provincial police have clued into the fact that there is a danger here. And of course, the background in Quebec to this is the man who committed the murder of six Muslims at a Quebec City mosque. He was somebody who amongst the wide variety of xenophobic and racist material that he was consuming in the weeks before he committed the massacre, he was exposing himself to conspiracy theories like Alex Jones of Info Wars. So we know in Quebec, provincial police know the danger it can have. It doesn’t take a lot of people. It takes one person who was radicalized to that point to create a tragedy. So I think we’re seeing a fairly proactive response from provincial police.
Jordan: I was going to ask if you had an idea when that changed. Because as soon as you mentioned that the police were starting to take it a lot more seriously, I thought about early July, Corey Hurren accused in the Rideau Hall attack of just, driving in there with his truck, trying to get to Justin Trudeau. And maybe that kind of woke all Canadian authorities up to how real this could get.
Jonathan: I think what’s been interesting in Quebec, I think, is that that politicians have have, over the months, have kind of started to sound the alarm repeatedly. Perhaps because they’re the ones who have been the target of a lot of these threats. It’s politicians who have been calling for stricter measures, are supportive of stricter measures. In the case of Premier Legault, implementing themselves. And so, in Quebec, it kind of started with one or two opposition politicians saying, hey, look, you know, there’s a lot of nasty stuff going on online, we’re being the victim of a lot of threats and more and more politicians join their voice to these concerns and in some cases sharing the threats that they’ve been receiving. And on the first day of the national assembly, the first day of the fall session of the provincial legislature here, a motion was tabled calling on the national assembly and the Quebec government to take conspiracy theories seriously and to recognize the danger they posed and that motion passed unanimously. So I think there definitely has been in Quebec, a shift in the public discourse about conspiracy theories. That this is not just, you know, people in tinfoil hats spouting some weird stuff. There is a real potential for violence here. And as we’ve seen over the past months, not only in Quebec, but, as you mentioned, the Rideau Hall incident, that the activity that people engage in online rarely end there. That there can be a translation into offline and to real world activity. And I think really in Quebec, we’re seeing a kind of realization that we need to pay attention to what people are saying on either on Facebook or on YouTube or on Twitter. That has real world impact.
Jordan: Last question. Were you surprised by the time you finished the story of the scope of belief in conspiracy theories? How nasty the threats can get? All of that stuff? Or is this, you know, what you had already assumed was happening?
Jonathan: I was surprised. I’ll be honest, Jordan, you know, I have monitored the far right in Quebec for several years, reported on them. The far right achieved a certain popularity, but was always very marginal. The extent to which conspiracy thinking has now kind of gone beyond just that marginal element of the Quebec society is quite surprising to me. And I think it’s quite alarming to a lot of people in the province. And I think it comes with a problem that you and I face, a general distrust in media, which seems to be spreading. And people are looking elsewhere for answers. And a lot of the places they’re looking for answers are engaged in this very pernicious, very dangerous mode of thinking, conspiracy thinking. And I think I certainly haven’t fully thought through the impact that has on Canadian and Quebec democracy. And I think doing this story has kind of forced me to kind of engage in a more profound reflection on what this means for our society, what this means for public discourse. Especially the moment now, when the need for social cooperation is so much higher if we’re going to kind of get through the pandemic in one piece, so to speak.
Jordan: That’s pretty frightening. And thank you so much for walking us through it today.
Jonathan: My pleasure, Jordan.
Jordan: Jonathan Monpetit of CBC Montreal. That was The Big Story. For more, and yes, we’ve done several episodes on Q Anon. It gets worse every time. Head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find them there. Find us on Twitter @thebigstoryFPN. Talk to us as always at our email address firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked this podcast, and I hope you do if you made it this far, head to your podcast player, hit subscribe. Leave us a rating. Leave us a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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