Evolving ‘Freedom’ Movement Fights Perceptions of ‘Government Overreach’: CSIS


The loose-knit collective that openly opposed COVID-19 health measures has morphed into a movement waging a broader fight against “perceived government overreach,” says a newly released assessment by Canada’s spy agency.

The analytical report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service traces the evolution of the “Freedom” movement that began to emerge following protests in early 2022 that paralyzed downtown Ottawa and key border points between Canada and the United States.

In early February 2022, the streets around Parliament Hill were packed with protesters, many of them in large trucks that arrived in the capital starting in late January.

Initially promoted as a demonstration against COVID-19 health restrictions, including lockdowns and vaccination demands, the rally attracted people with various grievances against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government.

Exactly two years ago, the federal government responded by invoking the Emergency Law, which allowed for temporary measures including a ban on public gatherings, instructions to banks to freeze assets, and a ban on supporting participants.

The Canadian Press used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the April 2023 CSIS report, “Defining the ‘Freedom’ Movement,” and related assessments of what the spy service calls ideologically motivated violent extremism.

While a movement may collectively hold extreme views, only a small portion of those involved may be willing to engage in serious violence, CSIS says.

The intelligence service notes the constitutional protection of free speech and stresses that it does not investigate legal protests unless they are carried out in conjunction with threat-related activities.

When many public health measures began to be lifted in early spring 2022, CSIS observed people “expanding the scope of their complaints” and identifying themselves as members of the “Freedom” movement.

The change was also evident to those who saw and heard flag-waving protesters lingering around Parliament buildings and gathering on motorway overpasses.

The “Freedom” movement builds on the core narratives of the movement against public health measures, including opposition to globalization and distrust of pharmaceutical companies, with a strong focus on alleged government infringement on personal freedoms, says the CSIS analysis.

“While this perceived tyranny is widespread throughout the movement, other narratives are becoming increasingly common among its followers,” the report says, citing opposition to:

  • the LGBTQ2S+ community, specifically drag storytelling and the inclusion of material in public school curricula;
  • perceived increase in global control over Canada by international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Economic Forum;
  • communism;
  • and the concept of “15-minute cities,” on the grounds that planning easily navigable communities is a plot to restrict mobility rights and create a mass surveillance state.

CSIS is looking at the potential of such narratives to generate disruption and violence, said Barbara Perry, director of the Center on Hate, Prejudice and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.

“They’re of the view that these are the kinds of complaints, so to speak, that are likely to drive people to the brink of violence,” Perry said in an interview.

CSIS defines an ideologically motivated violent extremist movement as a loosely organized group of people, united by virtual and offline networks, who share a distinct identity.

Such movements have adversarial relationships with clearly identified opponents and aim to bring about, resist or undo social change, the intelligence service report says.

A movement does not have a formal or legitimate leader, but is guided by the people who join it more or less spontaneously, says CSIS.

Perry said the move toward these more flexible, individual-based movements is “a worrying trend” in some respects because it is “much harder to identify which of those hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people” are going to commit an act of violence. extreme violence.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2024.

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