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At least 20% of Ontario PPC candidates have participated in hostile anti-vaccine protests. Why some say their attendance legitimizes dangerous beliefs

At least 20% of Ontario PPC candidates have participated in hostile anti-vaccine protests. Why some say their attendance legitimizes dangerous beliefs
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are participating in and organizing increasingly rancorous protests targeting hospitals and politicians, a strategy that coincides with the once-fringe party’s rapid rise in public support.

At least 20 per cent of Ontario PPC candidates have attended the often vitriolic protests where attendees push a kaleidoscope of conspiracies and vaccine misinformation, Torstar has found.

A review of local news stories and the social media accounts of all 116 Ontario PPC candidates found 25 made posts about taking part in the protests, which have drawn the ire of hospital officials and politicians.

Torstar’s review shows the candidates are helping to fuel the protests, which have at times turned violent. After one in London, a now-expelled PPC riding president was criminally charged for allegedly Justin Trudeau, and another in Cambridge featured calls for his execution.

Candidates’ attendance also helps legitimize the conspiratorial beliefs of some of the protesters and entrench them into Canadian political culture, said Alison Meek, a historian at King’s University College, at the University of Western Ontario.

“We ignore it at our peril,” said Meek, who studies the rise and evolution of conspiracy theories and political extremism.

“If people think with this election that this is all just going to go away, history has shown that, no, it won’t. And we need to be vigilant. We need to be aware.”

When Torstar reached out to PPC leader Maxime Bernier regarding his candidates’ presence at the protests, a senior party spokesperson replied: “Get lost, f---ing idiot.”

The PPC’s support nationwide reached 7.3 per cent as of Thursday, eclipsing both the Green party and the Bloc Québécois, according to Vox Pop Labs polling for the Star. That could put the party within reach of claiming at least one seat in the House of Commons.

At a protest in Burlington, with the Joseph Brant Hospital visible in the background, PPC candidate Michael Bator used the event to galvanize support for his campaign.

“We’re going to go purple but we gotta get the word out,” he said in a video recording, posted online Sept. 3. “I need troops to help me.”

The tone of the protests, which commonly feature vulgar “f--- Trudeau” flags, is echoed in the social media posts by Bernier, who has labelled Trudeau a “fascist psychopath” on Twitter.

In addition to the candidates who have attended protests in Ontario, more than a dozen others have promoted the events on their social media channels, urging followers to take part. More than half of all Ontario PPC candidates have shared vaccine disinformation and opposition to vaccine mandates and passports.

Torstar also confirmed PPC candidates in other provinces, including B.C., Alberta and Quebec, participated in protests.

Like Bator, many candidates post photos and videos of protests on their social media accounts.

Anthony Zambito of the Dufferin-Caledon riding posted a live Instagram video of an anti-vaccine protest outside a Toronto restaurant, featuring a woman holding a sign that compared vaccine mandates to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, complete with a yellow Star of David patch.

Chelsea Hillier, daughter of independent MPP Randy Hillier and candidate for Elgin-Middlesex-London, tweeted a photo of herself at a hospital protest holding her clenched fist in the air.

“We are NEVER GOING TO STOP standing up for our freedoms. I promise my constituents I will resist, at all costs, the authoritarian mandates,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Windsor-Tecumseh candidate Victor Green has turned his presence at a hospital protest into a promotional video for his campaign modelled after a television news segment.

The Star reached out to every Ontario PPC candidate that attended protests. Most of those requests went unanswered. Three declined to answer questions.

“When our current government provides the scientific data that warrants COVID-19 a pandemic, I would be more than willing to speak with you,” wrote Corrado Brancato, the PPC candidate for Barrie-Innisfil.

London-West candidate Mike McMullen — who attended two hospital protests in London — rejected any notion the events were negative or divisive.

“There was several thousand people outside of the (London Health Sciences Centre) hospital. So I attended that, it’s in my riding, to support the people there and what they believe because nobody’s speaking for them,” McMullen said in an interview. “The idea of a politician is to bring people together on both sides of the argument and stop the division.”

McMullen said he opposed any kind of political violence, but would not criticize the vulgar language used at protests. He said HE “absolutely, absolutely” agrees with Bernier’s claim that Trudeau is a fascist, and falsely equated quarantine hotels for international travellers to the Gulag.

Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said Bernier has done what other populist leaders abroad have done: ride a wave of discontent to build a political movement.

Bernier, a former Conservative MP who left the Tories after a failed leadership bid, became a folk hero in the anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine communities by appearing at protest rallies throughout the pandemic.

“He’s found a theme. He’s found a subject matter that will bring people into the fold,” Perry said. “He knew there were enough people angry at the lockdown and all the public health restrictions. And he played to that.”

Perry called the relationship between the PPC and the protests that attract disparate conspiracy theorists, a “chicken and the egg situation,” with one constantly fuelling the other.

While PPC candidates often portray these protests as grassroots movements, Meek said the party itself plays a significant role in sustaining them.
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