Did Ezra Levant just kill the Conservative Party?

The fallout from the “Unite The Right” chaos in Charlottesville has turned into something quite unexpected: a wake-up call for Conservatives, but only a purge of the Harper-era old guard will save the party from itself

The couple from Quebec City, two children in tow and taking a snap at the Jack Layton memorial, wanted to know if there was a “parc d’amusement” nearby. She was wearing a hijab. He, an Expos baseball cap. I directed them to the nearby ferry docks taking tourists to the Islands. Then, I asked if I could take a photo of them. I shared it on Twitter. I don’t know why exactly, except that I may have been feeling a bit sentimental as it was the Monday after the “alt-right” violence in Charlottesville. And it seemed a good place to contemplate the idea that hope is better than fear in these charged times.

I’d always imagined that when the end came for Donald Trump it would look like a replay of Howard Hughes, with Trump locked in a darkened room somewhere high in the Trump Tower, pissing in empty bottles and paranoid at the thought the FBI would soon be knocking down the door. I just never expected frat boys with faux Hitler knock off haircuts and tiki torches and far-right figures with names like Baked Alaska and Augustus Invictus would figure in the drama. 

Impeachment looms larger now that the FBI has raided former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s house and a grand jury has been impanelled to investigate possible criminal activity over Trump’s Russia connections. The guy who breathed life into Trump’s nationalist agenda to Make America Hate Again, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, is also gone. 

The far right may inspire fear, but the violence on the streets in Charlottesville – and fallout since – resembles more the kicking and screaming of an America on the way out than some new vanguard of a right wing movement. Before his departure, Bannon told American Prospect in an interview (he has since claimed was off the record) what he really thinks of the far right in the U.S.: “a collection of clowns.” 

Indeed. The right is in retreat – has been, in fact, in the U.S. (and Europe see Germany, France, Denmark) since Trump was elected. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you’re  following the Trump hit parade.

Up here in the Great White North, the fallout from the “Unite The Right” chaos has turned into something quite unexpected: a wake-up call for the conservative movement and the Conservative Party of Canada that represents it.

But don’t expect a reckoning to come of it. It’s too late for that. At this point, only a wholesale purge of the Harper-era old guard – like the one that’s slowly happening in the Ontario wing of the party under Patrick Brown – will save the Conservative Party from itself. In Ontario, the Libs are already moving to turn the reverberations from Charlottesville into an election issue.

Can Charlottesville happen here?

The answer to that question is that it already has.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise in Canada since the election of Trump (see Quebec City mosque shooting), encouraged by an unhinged coalition of various groups opposed to immigration, Muslim prayer rooms in public schools and the Liberal’s anti-Islamophobia motion M-103, which sparked right wing hysteria and numerous rallies across the country. Then there’s the Conservative Party of Canada.

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Allan Gibbons

Banner hung outside Conservative MP Kellie Leitch’s constituency office after Quebec City mosque shooting.

The Cons have unabashedly taken their political cues from Trump stateside, giving a platform to the misanthropes and malcontents who occupy the fringes of the party – and who have been handed a megaphone by Rebel Media, the online outlet founded by former Reform party brat and Sun News Network mouthpiece Ezra Levant. Levant has made a career of promoting anti-Muslim hate. It’s finally caught up to him.

In case you haven’t heard – and you can be forgiven for making a point of ignoring the static that usually passes for news in right wing circles – The Rebel is cleaning up its act, rebooting after the shit hit the fan over (now former) Rebel reporter/Fox News wannabe Faith Goldy’s on-the-ground coverage in Charlottesville. Specifically, an interview Goldy gave the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer after James Alex Fields pulled an ISIS and (allegedly) drove his car into counter-protestors (killing Heather Heyer and critically injuring others). During her interview with the Daily Stormer, Goldy offered a “salute” to white supremacists (not, the Sieg Heil kind she would later clarify), presumably for the classy way they were conducting themselves amid the violence. 

Ever since, Cons happy to suck up to The Rebel in the past for the support it could buy them among rank and file, have been scurrying to distance themselves.

Newly minted CPC leader Andrew Scheer, who owes his victory to the social conservatives in party ranks who make up a fair chunk of The Rebel rabble, has been telling anyone who will listen he won’t be giving the outlet an interview until it changes its “editorial direction.” Perhaps he was hoping no one would notice the fact his campaign chair, Hamish Marshall, is a director of the outlet, or at least he was until last week. He is jumping ship, too. 

Andrew Scheer.jpg

Conservative Party of Canada’s new leader, Andrew Scheer, is a clone of the old leader.

It all seems rather convenient. 

Even Jason Kenney got in on the act. The guy who has been heading up his own “Unite The Right” effort out west can lie with the best of ’em when it comes to vile, anti-Muslim rhetoric, resorting to fake news tweets, among other things. Kenney is a carbon copy of Levant. The two were part of the so-called “snack pack” of Reform MPs elected to Ottawa under Preston Manning.  

As Stephen Harper’s minister of multiculturalism, Kenney initiated the niqab ban for Canadian citizenship ceremonies that was eventually ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. The case became the strategy around which the HarperCons would pin their hopes of an electoral comeback when their chances for victory started fading fast in 2015. It didn’t work.

But rather than the Cons’ nothing-but-niqabs strategy giving the party pause about the direction it was headed, the CPC looked to Trump south of the border and decided to continue to steer a hard right course, electing Harper clone Scheer as leader and putting the party’s Reform rump firmly in control. Harper may no longer be leader, but as a director of the party’s fundraising arm, the Conservative Fund, his influence is still being felt.

Arguably, the groundwork for the current xenophobic and racially tinged incarnation of the Conservative Party was laid by Harper himself, quick to indulge in anti-Muslim bigotry when it suited his political ends, as in the case of Omar Khadr for example. It seems too long ago to remember now, but when Harper was a Young Turk in Reform, the party’s dalliance’s with the far right included overtly racist groups like the Heritage Front. In that sense, the recent controversy over Charlottesville and The Rebel is a sign of the CPC’s return full-circle to its xenophobic Reform roots.

There was some back and forth on social media after Charlottesville about “principled” conservatives here needing to take a stand, or risk “scumbags and losers” (i.e.: neo-Nazis) taking over the movement.

The call for introspection was hard to take seriously, seeing as the chatter found its way into my Twitter feed via Nick Kouvalis, who also happens to be the architect behind Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian values” run for CPC leadership, a dog-whistle campaign almost entirely constructed on winning support from The Rebel crowd. Candidates didn’t have much choice but to suck up to The Rebel if they wanted to be CPC leader, according to leadership contender, Chris Alexander, who, to his credit, at least had the foresight to cut off The Rebel before most of his colleagues.

Rebel with an anti-Muslim cause

How did a huckster like Levant, the self-described Rebel “commander,” go from political punchline to éminence grise of the conservative movement? 

Conservative commentators have offered various theories since The Rebel’s Charlottesville implosion. My view is less romantic. Levant has been milking his connections to the CPC for whatever pet projects and book deals he could get ever since he gave up his nomination to run in Calgary Southwest for the Canadian Alliance in 2002 so Harper could run in his stead. 

When he resurrected Rebel Media from the demise of Sun News Network in 2015, Levant was just another self-promoter raising money for various (mostly anti-Muslim) causes. But everything changed in the lead up to Trump’s election. For The Rebel, it was the perfect storm. Thanks to the Trump phenomenon (and the international exposure it created), the Rebel quickly went from a venue for weirdos to Canada’s version of Breitbart News, the U.S.-based website founded by Bannon and fond of conspiracy theories, not to mention misogynist, racist and xenophobic views. When Alexandre Bissonnette went on a shooting rampage in a Quebec City mosque killing six people in late January, The Rebel pulled a Fox, floating the conspiracy that the real culprit was a second shooter, a Muslim assailant who the police authorities were keeping under wraps, presumably to perpetuate a hoax on the masses. 

While Levant’s own anti-Muslim sentiments had historically been informed by his unabashed pro-Israel view of the world, the Rebel was increasingly beginning to trade in the far-right views of racist fringe. Maybe the clicks the site was generating (and the money from online subscribers that came with the added exposure) was going to Levant’s head.

Levant admits now to “mistakes,” like sending to Goldy to Charlottesville in the first place, but that’s hard to square with the outlet’s connections to vigilante groups like the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which has provided “security” at Rebel events and participated in rallies against the Libs’ anti-Islamophobia motion M-103 alongside far right organizations like Soldiers of Odin, and Pegida Canada, a branch of Germany-based PEGIDA, or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.” 

Not to mention the motley crew that showed at The Rebel’s “Rally For Free Speech” at Canada Christian College in February. Some among them gathered outside Masjid Toronto mosque a couple of days later for a protest organized by Rise Canada, whose “executive adviser,” Ron Banerjee, is a well-known homophobe. 

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Rowaida Abdelaziz

Rise Canada demonstration outside Masjid Toronto mosque, February 2017.

But it was the blowback that occurred after The Rebel’s “mission to Israel” over Rebel personality Gavin McInnes’s “10 Things I Hate About Jews” video, that marked a breaking point for longtime supporters of Levant’s base in the Jewish community. Levant defended McInnes’s ramblings as “humour,” even while it was attracting props from the likes of former KKK “grand wizard” David Duke. 

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs described the video as “offensive and stupid. If Rebel thinks this helps Israel’s cause, think again.” More conservative Jewish advocacy groups B’nai Brith Canada and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, remained conspicuously silent, at least publicly, over the controversy.

Behind the scenes, however, they were beginning to express their own reservations about just how off the rails things had gone at The Rebel. Confronting jihad is one thing. Doing it arm-in-arm with neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers is quite another, especially now that word on the street is that Toronto police are investigating a number of groups and individuals involved in the demo outside Masjid mosque for hate crimes. Jewish groups were themselves lobbying the Ontario government to more aggressively pursue prosecution around incidents of anti-Semitism.

Curtains for the Cons?

While police forces across Ontario, including Toronto’s, have historically been reluctant to pursue hate crime charges – the Attorney General of Ontario must sign off before they can be formally laid – the Wynne government made an unusual point of issuing a public statement, hinting at more charges to come after Kevin Johnston, another Rebel cause célèbre with a history of anti-Muslim activities, was charged with wilful promotion of hate in July. 

In what’s looking more like a strategy to turn anti-Muslim activity in 905 hotbeds Brampton and Mississauga into an election issue, the Libs have already started making hay of PC leader Patrick Brown’s appearances on The Rebel, as well as fringe types in his caucus fighting his efforts to remake the PCPO. 

Levant, meanwhile, is planning a comeback for The Rebel. And figuring out, no doubt, how to turn the latest controversy into his next fight for freedom. He’s crowdfunding his effort online. Last I checked, he was halfway to his goal of 30,000 donors.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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