Last Halloween, the hosts of a white nationalist podcast called The Ensign Hour discussed how to propel their ideology into the mainstream of Canadian politics. Although they pined for a “European homeland,” the co-hosts were all too aware of just how unappealing their movement remained to the political mainstream.
“We’re not at the stage where we can have a straight up nationalist party and start winning seats,” lamented one of the podcasters, who went by the name “Cracker Jack.”
What the country’s tiny cadre of neo-Nazis and the broader alt-right movement needed was a politician who could bridge the gap between the mainstream and the far-right fringe — someone who was an unabashed supporter of “Western values,” who would clamp down on immigration and multiculturalism.
That person, they decided, was Maxime Bernier.
Last August, after the long-serving Conservative MP denounced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity,” the Ensign Hour hosts perked up. When Bernier declared “the death of political correctness in Canada” to his more than 65,000 Twitter followers, it was heard as a dog whistle.
“This sets a precedent. This is a huge step forward. This opens the conversation for our people — the Europeans, the settler class — to give us permission to speak our minds,” said “Cracker Jack,” who later identified himself as Tyler Hall-Kuch on the show after the Star reached out to him for comment.
In September, about a month after quitting the Conservative Party, Bernier founded the People’s Party of Canada. Pundits and rival politicians dismissed it as a vanity project, the product of Bernier’s bitterness after having lost the Conservative leadership to Andrew Scheer in 2017.
But in just four months, the PPC signed up more than 33,000 members and has become a thorn in the side of Scheer and the Conservative Party, which has been forced to protect its right flank on issues like immigration and identity. More importantly, the PPC now has electoral district associations in every one of the country’s 338 federal ridings. Considering the party was little more than an angry Twitter feed last fall, the speed of PPC’s rise is notable.
Bernier declined through a spokesperson to speak to the Star for this story, but has said he wants nothing to do with white nationalists. “Racists are not welcome in this party,” he told Montreal radio station CJAD in December.
His party, meanwhile, has attempted to distance itself from the alt-right fringe, compelling its riding association members to sign pledges promising not to besmirch the party’s reputation.
But that public rejection seems to have done little to deter his alt-right supporters. The co-hosts of the Ensign Hour and others have called on members of the alt-right to infiltrate the PPC, whether the party is willing or not. As the extreme right has done elsewhere, they hope to move an adolescent political party, bit by bit, toward the political extreme, and thereby bring the political extreme toward the mainstream.
“What you need to do, you handsome, rugged listener who is listening at this moment, when this party gets created and has a name, you’re going to join,” said Ensign Hour co-host Bernardo “Dixon” Garcia, who also revealed his real name on the podcast in the wake of the Star reaching out to him for comment.
A Star investigation found three riding association executive members and a provincial organizer for the People’s Party of Canada who have made hateful comments about immigrants, Muslims and other visible minorities. Bernier’s party has parted ways with them, and Bernier has taken pains to distance himself from the alt-right, but their ability to attain those positions suggests that people who hold such views see his party as a vehicle for bringing the politics of the alt-right into the mainstream.
- Nicola Hanson, who until recently served as the party’s Ontario organizer, disparaged Islam and Muslims in Twitter posts. “Islam is not Canadian. Canada was founded by Christianity. They do not assimilate because they don’t want to. They want to take Canada and every non Muslim country and kill non converters,” she tweeted in December 2017.
Then, in a tweet last March, she wrote, “Get the hell out of Canada. We don’t want you here, understand? I don’t give a rats [sic] ass about your stupid Islam. Go away pedophile.”
Hanson told the Star she had been “baited” into making the comments. “I have nothing against Islam,” she wrote in an email. “Everyone in Canada enjoys freedom of religion, which is one of our great pillars.” In a subsequent email, Hanson said she didn’t write the anti-Islam Tweets at all, claiming instead that her account had been “used without my consent.”
- Emil Sosnin was elected to the executive of the PPC’s Thornhill riding association. Posts in his name on an alt-right Facebook group include one that said, “When I have kids, they will not play with n*****s.” (The Star added the asterisks.) Another post, in response to a story about German history, said, “I hope those are tears of Jews.” (Sosnin appears to be a listener of the Ensign Hour. In September, he tweeted about the show, “where is episode NEIN? Need my dose of toxic masculinity #itsokaytobewhite.”) The Star made repeated efforts to contact Sosnin through email and his active social media accounts, but he did not respond.
- Joanne Dinelle, an executive on the PPC’s association in the Montreal-area riding of Pierrefonds-Dollard, has posted anti-Muslim comments using the since-deleted Twitter handle @Warrioroftruths. On Nov. 28, she referred to Islam as an “insane radical religion” and reminded her followers that “Our Minister of Immigration is a MUSLIM,” in reference to Ahmed Hussen. Asked about the posts via Twitter, Dinelle told the Star, “I do believe we must take a stand for what we believe in as individuals and every citizen has the right to freedom of expression while supporting their personal beliefs.”
- Leigh Stuart, until recently a vice-president of a PPC’s riding association in the Niagara region, achieved notoriety for documenting, along with self-described white nationalist Ronny Cameron, a trip into a Scarborough hotel which housed recent migrants to Canada. The video shows them wandering the halls, acting altogether disgusted at the surroundings, which they attribute to the migrants living there. She didn’t respond to an interview request.
Stuart is also associated with a forum called the Mad Max Bernier Facebook page. (Bernier is not associated with the page, according to PPC spokesperson Martin Masse.) The page featured a caricature of Scheer being manipulated like a puppet by Jewish philanthropist George Soros, a favourite target of anti-Semites. Another meme featured a doctored picture of Bernier sitting behind a desk emblazoned with a sign reading “Scheer is queer, change my mind.”
Contacted last month, Masse told the Star that Stuart remained on her riding association’s executive, but that Hanson, Sosnin and Dinelle had all been dropped from their positions as a result of their social media posts. Stuart has since resigned from the PPC executive. “I support Maxime Bernier and his message, but refuse to represent his employed henchmen who potentially leaked my info to journalists and privately message me telling me what I can and cannot post,” she tweeted on Jan. 16. Masse wouldn’t comment on Stuart’s resignation.
Some in the alt-right see an opportunity in Bernier’s statements about immigration and multiculturalism and hope he may one day be in a position to make anti-immigration policies a reality.
“We need strength and we need conviction. We need true alpha-ism, because that is what the right is all about,” Cameron said in a podcast last August. “We don’t want Liberal light. Screw Andrew Scheer. It’s all about Maxime Bernier.”
The alt-right is a loose movement of white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, self-styled militias and anti-government extremists; anti-immigration, closed-border activists and anti-Muslim fanatics; conspiracists, culture warriors, men’s rights activists, anti-feminists and societal traditionalists.
This restive and fractious bunch share the cause of self-preservation — namely, of Western (read: white) heritage, culture and demographics. They seek a return to “traditional” gender roles and the protection of this culture, which is invariably under attack by a host of alleged enemies: progressive politicians, leftist groups, successive waves of immigration, along with religious and sexual minorities.
The alt-right found its stride with the election of Donald Trump, glomming onto the removal of Confederate statues in the southern United States as an example of widespread anti-white enmity. But although it had certain successes in broadening its appeal, the alt-right largely remained a street-level phenomenon, albeit one with a prolific online presence.
Richard Spencer, the American who coined the term “alt-right” and is among the movement’s most prominent and telegenic leaders, has argued that if the movement hopes to expand its reach, white nationalists need to look and act like everyday folks. The Ensign Hour podcast, which has had Spencer as a guest, seems to have taken this message to heart. Hall-Kuch and Garcia were frequent guests on the now-defunct podcast 88 Minutes, a more popular and more explicitly racist precursor to the Ensign Hour, which went off the air following a Vice News investigation last May. The Ensign Hour, named after Canada’s official flag prior to 1965, aimed to take a subtler approach. It would be “a family friendly show,” as Garcia put it in a July podcast. (The hosts, however, have not always succeeded in suppressing their most vitriolic views. In one episode, Hall-Kuch recited the so-called “14 words” slogan, a core tenet of the neo-Nazi movement, which espouses the protection and promotion of the white race.)
The hosts of the show have promoted another strategy for expanding the alt-right’s reach, so-called “entryism,” the infiltration and overtaking of political parties. While there are few examples in Canada, parties in the United Kingdom, Australia and France, among other countries, have had to grapple with extreme-right groups using this tactic in recent years.
In Australia, for instance, the national broadcaster reported that far-right groups espousing neo-Nazi and white nationalist philosophies attempted to take over a youth wing of the National Party in New South Wales. In France, Al Jazeera reported that violent far-right individuals had risen to political posts within Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. In the U.K., former UKIP members were accused of mounting an “entryist” campaign to take over the governing Conservative Party last year.
The Ensign Hour has devoted airtime to the notion that the Canadian political system, too, can be infiltrated and even overtaken. Hall-Kuch and Garcia first suggested doing so with the Conservative Party, but changed their minds in the wake of Bernier’s “extreme diversity” tweetstorm. “Even if [Bernier’s] just paying lip-service to us with the anti-immigration stuff, they’ve shown that there’s interest in this,” said Garcia.
Hall-Kuch already has political experience. He worked on the Toronto mayoral campaign of alt-right media personality Faith Goldy, who has made a career out of scapegoating immigrants and espousing the theory of “white genocide.” Goldy has also endorsed Bernier’s candidacy.
The alt-right’s attempts to infiltrate mainstream politics is neither surprising nor particularly novel. The Ku Klux Klan did as much in the 1920s by soft-pedalling its violent past and eschewing the anti-Black rhetoric that had come to define the group. Instead, it blamed the “new” wave of immigration to the U.S. — Jews and Catholics from Europe, for the most part — for a host of perceived social ailments.
As with the Klan before them, today’s alt-right sees its future not on the street but within the corridors of power. “White supremacists had become savvy at outwardly masking their real beliefs and intentions while most wrote them off as political innocuous wackos. Having bided their time, they are re-emerging to try and capitalize on a racially recharged political climate,” wrote American sociologists Robert Futrell and Peter Simi in 2017 in the journal Contexts.
The strategy is by no means limited to the U.S. “We’ve been seeing a shift to the political realm for at least the last five years in Canada,” said Ryan Scrivens, an expert in right-wing extremism at Montreal’s Concordia University.
“It’s going to be essential to the extreme right movement to continue to develop what they perceive as legitimate messaging so they can attract people into the movement that would otherwise be put off by violent force.”
The PPC isn’t the only Canadian party that has struggled to purge people who have expressed racist views from its ranks. Last year, Alberta’s populist United Conservative Party (UCP) expelled member Adam Strashok, who worked on Jason Kenney’s leadership campaign, after online media outlet Ricochet unearthed Strashok’s social media posts espousing anti-Semitic and white supremacist views.
More recently, the Star reviewed the Twitter feeds of Steven Luft, who until recently was president of the UCP’s Calgary Bow constituency association. Among Luft’s since-deleted posts is a response to a 2016 New York Times story about Sweden changing its outlook on refugees. “Most likely because #Refugees bring rape and violence with them and disrupt the host nation,” Luft wrote. UCP spokesperson Matt Solberg told the Star Luft is no longer with the party. The Star was unable to get a comment from Luft about his social media posts or his UCP position.
PPC party brass has tried to calm the online rhetoric of its supporters. “If you disagree with the government of Canada do so in a polite and respectful manner,” wrote PPC executive director Clinton Desveaux on Twitter in December, minutes after the Star sent screenshots from the Mad Max Bernier Facebook page.
Yet the apparent PR push, not to mention Desveaux’s gentle reminder, has sometimes been undermined by Bernier himself. He regularly uses language favoured by the alt-right, calling Trudeau a “hypocritical virtue signaller” and denouncing feminism as “a radical left-wing ideology” like “cultural Marxism.”
Bernier’s shift to identity politics has left some of his former supporters aghast — including at least one of the advisers who worked on his Conservative leadership campaign in 2017. “For a long time a lot of us were sympathetic to Max … We went to work for the guy. We wanted him to win more than anything,” said a former member of Bernier’s leadership team, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of being targeted by Bernier’s supporters.
“When he started talking about immigration, it was such a negative tone. By going in that direction he has lost us forever.”
Some observers believe Bernier’s pivot to anti-immigration politics was prompted less by any ideological commitment than by a political calculation.
“Bernier is essentially a libertarian, except that he knows that if you say you’re a libertarian you get about half a per cent of the votes, so he has to find legitimacy elsewhere,” said Quebec-based conservative pundit Jeff Plante. “It’s normal that the conservative movement would attract the anti-mass-immigration vote in the country. The problem is that Bernier isn’t legit in this. He has no past in it. It’s like he’s throwing ideas around to see what sticks.”
But if he is using identity politics to expand the constituency for the libertarian ideas he has long touted, he is playing a dangerous game, says Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
“[Bernier] would be aware that this kind of rhetoric could attract people who listen to some of the Hitler rhetoric [and] who are associated with the far right. It’s hard to imagine that he would be unaware of the ramifications of these comments,” Beland said. “Simply saying he’s against racism while at the same time attracting these people is … problematic and might turn against him over the next few months if it gets out of control.”
For their part, the Ensign Hour hosts have pleaded with Bernier to “drop the libertarian stuff,” as Hall-Kuch put it in a recent podcast, urging him instead to continue his criticism of immigration and multiculturalism.
“The reason why this party received any attention at all was because of its stance on immigration specifically. There was overtures to libertarian economic theory and models and ending supply management. But most people would agree that the reason why they care is because this new party’s alleged stance on immigration,” Garcia said on an Ensign Hour podcast in October.
“That’s why anyone gives a s**t about any of this.”
With files from Alex Boutilier, Emma McIntosh and Marco Oved.
Zachary Kamel and Martin Patriquin are freelance writers based in Montreal. Alheli Picazo is a freelance writer based in Calgary.