Canada is almost certainly headed toward some kind of inquiry into foreign interference in its democracy.
But if its focus is solely on China or Russia and other state actors, it won’t be tackling the potentially far more troubling forces that proved so disruptive to Canada during last year’s convoy protest.
Is the country ready to take that dark dive into foreign interference — the non-China variety?
Michael Kempa is a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa who closely watched the convoy protest and is now writing a book on who and what was behind it.
“I personally am more worried about the influence of the far right from the United States and elsewhere,” Kempa says flatly when I ask him about foreign interference. “Which is not to say, I don’t think that there’s nothing to worry about with the efforts of the Chinese government to corrupt our system, or Iran, or Russia.”
Kempa thinks it’s a good thing the Canadian political conversation has become seized with foreign interference over the past few months, but he also believes it’s been far too narrowly focused only on questions surrounding China.
“But there are all manner of non-state entities that are seeking to influence our electoral outcomes,” he says.
So would an inquiry help?
“Absolutely,” Kempa says. “An inquiry would help because it would start to illuminate the state and non-state networks of misanthropic actors that seek to influence electoral outcomes.”
Kempa’s book is due out next year. It’s called “The Freedom Convoy: Transporting the Dark Politics of the Far Right Across Canada.” It will confront some disturbing realities only hinted at during the formal inquiry into the convoy protest, led by Justice Paul Rouleau.
The Rouleau inquiry did feature testimony and participation from most of the convoy protest leaders — people such as Tamara Lich, Brigitte Belton, Chris Barber, James Bauder, Pat King and Tom Marazzo, to name a few. Kempa is interested in these characters, but also to the networks and financing that opened up to them as the convoy widened its grip on order in Canada.
Matt Gurney, co-founder of The Line, did some groundbreaking work in Ottawa during the convoy protest in February 2022, and he wrote memorably of the “hard men” lurking at the headquarters out on Coventry Road in Ottawa. He was referring to the more quiet organizers making their presence felt amid the horn honking, bouncy castles and hot tubs lining Wellington Street in front of Parliament.
While Kempa thinks the Rouleau inquiry and report yielded significant, groundbreaking work, he thinks the process treated the question of foreign influence in the same, limited way as Canadian political debate of late — as mainly a problem only when hostile governments are meddling.
One of the chapters in his book is titled “Global Misanthropes” — the name Kempa gives to actors who aren’t meddling in countries’ democracies on behalf of any government or even any coherent, political ideology. They’re just out to provoke chaos, disorder and distrust in the state and institutions.
Those forces were at play during the convoy, Kempa asserts, and there were all kinds of hints and warnings that some of the protest was being prodded along by forces in the United States.
Their organizational weakness is also their strength, it appears. They are hard to track simply because they are more of a movement, or a collection of grievances. Generally, those grievances can be summed up as “anti-modernity,” Kempa says — opposition to everything from science to banks or any kind of data-collecting institution.
Kempa says it’s important to note this movement cannot be seen as one centrally organized cause, but instead a loosely aligned network of fellow travellers, mainly on the far right, who are ready to latch on to any cause that causes disruption. COVID and the pandemic restrictions became a powerful cause for them because it fed on people’s long-simmering frustrations, especially after the Omicron wave in late 2021. Kempa calls the convoy protest “a tactic in search of a cause,” and urges people to recall that smaller convoys were bubbling up in the U.S. and as far away as Australia before it hit Canada’s capital and border points with the United States.
“They’re not a co-ordinated cabal. They tend to know one another because they’re wealthy, and they donate money to all kinds of these things,” Kempa explains. “They go to fundraisers and see each other and they rub shoulders with the more nasty characters that are more peripherally involved, especially in the United States.”
It’s worth remembering too, incidentally, that some of the foreign influence during the convoy was happening right out in plain sight, with the Canadian demonstrators being urged on by Fox News and even some leading Republican politicians.
If this all sounds like the makings of a fictional thriller or even a conspiracy theory, well, that’s hard to dispute. Then again, no one would have predicted that a ragtag demonstration against COVID measures would turn into three-week long occupation of Canada’s capital and an economy-threatening blockade at the biggest border point between Canada and the U.S in early 2022.
It remains to be seen how large an inquiry or an investigation is being negotiated among the government and opposition parties right now. Back in the winter, when Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff, was asked about the prospects of an inquiry, she said that much revolved around what question(s) an inquiry would have to address.
There’s a real danger, in other words, of making an inquiry so large that it will only skim the surface of foreign meddling in Canada’s democracy.
Kempa believes there’s a way to do an inquiry that would get at the questions he’s pursuing in his convoy research and forthcoming book.
“The way to do it would be to focus on the entry points of foreign interference,” he explains. “Instead of saying, ‘what are all the forms of foreign interference out there?’ you say, ‘where is the Canadian system targeted?’” For instance, he said, take a hard look at who and what is trying to fiddle with nominations at any political level — whether that’s state actors like China or Russia, or non-state players like we saw during the convoy.
In the coming days, Canadians will learn just how ambitiously the political class is seized with the issue of foreign interference. If it’s only about what’s been in the headlines these past few months, it’s an opportunity missed to shine a light on a darker, potentially larger threat to democratic integrity here.
Canada just arrested “Dark Foreigner,” one of the most influential neo-Nazi propagandists of the past decade.
Patrick Gordon Macdonald, 26, was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and charged with participating in an activity of a terrorist group, facilitating terrorist activity, and commission of an offense for a terrorist group (wilful promotion of hatred.)
Macdonald was first initially identified as the neo-Nazi propagandist “Dark Foreigner” by VICE News in 2021. An investigation exposed Macdonald’s long history of working as essentially the chief propagandist with the neo-Nazi terrorist organization Atomwaffen.
“Mr. Macdonald allegedly helped produce propaganda material for the benefit of the terrorist entity Atomwaffen Division,” reads the RCMP press release. “He allegedly participated in and facilitated the creation, production and distribution of three terrorist propaganda videos.”
“This case is the first in Canada in which an individual advocating a violent far-right ideology has been charged with both terrorism and hate propaganda.”
The RCMP did not comment on VICE News' original story.
Following the publication of Macdonald’s identity by VICE News, the neo-Nazi was raided by the RCMP in early 2022 and several computers were seized. At the time,Macdonald was living in his parent's home, where he was running a small graphic design business.
Sources indicated to VICE News that he remained active with the extreme right after he was identified. Earlier this year, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network published an article alleging that he was a member of a Canadian Active Club, a neo-Nazi fitness group.
Macdonald was an immensely influential neo-Nazi propagandist and his work inspired other neo-Nazis and was one of the cornerstones of an aesthetic that became known as “terrorwave." Macdonald first joined the movement in 2017 via the influential neo-Nazi website Iron March, where he linked up Atomwaffen, an infamous neo-Nazi group connected to multiple murders. Using the alias “Dark Foreigner,” Macdonald quickly became the group’s chief propagandist and created posters and artwork celebrating terrorism, bigotry, and violence.
“Dark Foreigner was a critical figure in the development of the neofascist accelerationism aesthetic,” Matthew Kriner, the managing director of the Accelerationism Research Consortium told VICE News. “His arrest shows that law enforcement in Canada is committed to addressing and disrupting the growing threat of accelerationist violence and hate.
“Dark Foreigner was well connected in accelerationist networks and likely will represent the first of additional investigations and arrests associated with the accelerationist threat.”
Macdonald’s work and influence can still be seen today in the extreme right.
On top of creating artwork and propaganda for these neo-Nazi groups, Macdonald actively helped organize and tried to grow the groups, even traveling internationally to visit neo-Nazis overseas, VICE News has previously reported. Multiple people that Macdonald worked and palled around with would catch terrorism charges in the United Kingdom.
Other unnamed individuals were arrested alongside Macdonald but have not been named nor charged by the RCMP. Canada declared Atomwaffen a terrorist organization in February of 2021.
He will go before a judge later today.