If it had been just the pebbles, that would not have been far from the realm of expectations for a Canadian election, said Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism expert at Queen’s University who has been watching crowds protesting liberal leader Justin Trudeau with fear.

After all, it is a federal election. It is conceivable to imagine someone very angry at a prime minister losing his cool and spilling a bit of gravel. The same may have happened to former Prime Ministers Stephen Harper or Paul Martin. Former Prime Minister Jean Chré Tien can confirm: he received a cake to the face during a campaign stop in 2000.

But it wasn’t just the pebbles. And there was nothing “cool” left for the crowd of angry protesters in London, Ontario, to lose when at least one of them threw tiny rocks at Trudeau, hitting but not hurting him and some of the people around him. The clarion call of the hundreds of people protesting against Trudeau was not just to oust him from office by vote; it was, as they chanted, to label him a “traitor” and, as the now infamous saying goes, “lock him up.”

“What used to be (normal) political differences have become cosmic. It has become a conversation between good and evil, ”Amarasingam said. “Once you get to that level of conversation, it starts to turn into an extremist speech: he should be hanged, he is a traitor.”

Several experts on politics and extremism who spoke to The Star agreed that the 2021 elections have become a space of political unrest that is new to Canada. While it falls short of the level of political violence seen in Canada’s past with the October 1970 crisis, it contains more than a sample of the passionate populist attitudes that have led to extreme protests and even violence in the U.S. assault. to the Capitol on January 6.

The key, experts say, is the context of this election, with COVID-19 restrictions a matter of the polls and conspiracy-theorized opposition to the restrictions gaining popularity.

Amarasingam has observed what he calls the “merging of different far-right groups” to promote anti-government messages in the time of COVID-19. Suddenly anti-vaccine activists, anti-government libertarians, and far-right nationalists align themselves against Trudeau when it comes to handling the pandemic.

At least one blogger who leads a racist nationalist group called Canada First was photographed at the London protest, raising concerns that anti-vaccination campaigns could be a gateway to hatred.

One indication of growing support for right-wing populism in Canada is that the Maxime Bernier-led People’s Party of Canada, which promotes an end to lockdowns and vaccine mandates, is enjoying higher voting numbers than the party in 2019. Wednesday, three days in a row with eight percent of respondents saying they would vote for the PPC if the election were held on that day. They got 1.6 percent of the vote in 2019.

“The different movements have found a kind of common cause,” Amarasingam said. “The optimistic interpretation of that is that once the common cause is gone, everyone will go back to what they were doing before.”

The risk, Amarasingam said, is that Canada is instead seeing a right-wing populist base getting stronger, and that the high temperature of the protests could escalate into violence on a grand scale.

“Once people are in these movements and they get a bit of a sense of community by shouting into the crowd, they want to keep doing it because they feel like they are doing something bigger than themselves,” he said.

But he does not believe that the country is still at risk of serious violence.

“Until you start seeing people arrested, openly planning to assassinate politicians or something like that, that’s when you go to the next level of concern.”

Andrew McDougall, a political scientist at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said the apparent support for the PPC appears to be motivated by anger over pandemic restrictions, and that it makes sense that this growing political force is making others uncomfortable.

“This is a new party, it is more of a fringe party and people are a little nervous because throwing gravel in this context can take on nuances that it would not have in other elections,” McDougall said.

But at the same time, he said there are reasons why Bernier’s opponents would want to emphasize the willful violence behind the pitching incident, even if it’s not justified.

“To politicians being thrown things is nothing new,” he said, pointing to the 2000 pie face incident, and Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan being doused with milk by protesters in 1976. “There is a incentive to paint the PPC as an extremist and its supporters are extremists and every election has its dirty moments. “

Trudeau has said he will not give in to the protesters, calling them “anti-vaccine mobs.”

“As we see small groups of people lashing out in ways that remind us of horrible events like the assault on the Capitol, Canadians need to know that their leaders, that their country is standing firm not to allow that to happen,” Trudeau said in Montreal. Tuesday.

Chris Cochrane, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said he cannot recall a time in modern Canadian politics when aggression against a leader was so intense and sustained.

“We can dismiss stone throwing as a minor display of violence, but it has the feeling of being a gateway to something beyond social aggression,” Cochrane said. “I think this kind of atmosphere poses a threat to politicians and particularly to the prime minister that I have not seen in Canada in my life.”

Cochrane and Amarasingam agree that anti-coronavirus restriction content originating in the US is driving Canadian protests at least in part. What assures you that these protests will not escalate into something like the January 6 riots here in Canada is leadership.

“One thing we have in Canada that the Americans didn’t have is that we don’t have political leaders calling for these kinds of activities,” Cochrane said.

Bernier, Cochrane said, may be in the best position to reach out to protesters and try to cool down his actions toward Trudeau. As Cochrane saw it, he repudiated the violence of the pebble-throwing without repudiating the language used to describe Trudeau by the protesters.

“He made a comment that people express themselves with his words. That could be a defense of socially aggressive language, ”Cochrane said.

On Twitter, Bernier wrote Tuesday that the pebble toss was wrong.

“Some idiot threw rocks at Mr. Trudeau yesterday. I condemn it, ”he wrote. “Words are our weapons. But physical violence is ALWAYS wrong. “

With files from Alex Boutilier


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