Like a lot of Canadian provinces, Quebec has entered the second wave of COVID-19, with case numbers climbing rapidly. Doctors are concerned about whether the spread of the disease in an exhausted community can be contained, traced, and managed effectively enough to protect the most vulnerable.
But CBC journalist Jonathan Montpetit, who has spent months investigating the politics behind COVID-19 in Quebec, says we should be concerned about more than just the virus. Misinformation is spreading, too, and the resulting blend of religious extremism, far-right politics, and pseudoscience could prove lethal.
When masks became mandatory in mid-July, hundred-person protests sprung up across the province, calling the new rule a violation of free choice. But even as those smaller protests continue, larger anti-mask protests have sprung up in major city centers. Earlier this month, several thousand people marched through downtown Montreal to proclaim their belief that the pandemic is a false threat cooked up by dishonest actors in government.
And in late August, when a crowd of hundreds gathered on the other side of the Quebec-Ontario border at Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, protesters proudly flew Quebec’s blue-and-white provincial flag alongside Trump banners and QAnon logos.
So what’s going on in the province of Quebec? And what’s religion got to do with it?
While the anti-mask cause is not specifically religious, we’ve seen the far-right freedom rhetoric of protesters overlap with Christian evangelical fundamentalism countless times before. Anti-radicalization researcher Martin Geoffroy argues that the common thread that ties these movements together is a sense of resentment at being told what to do:
The common thing is that they are all anti-authority movements. Conspiracy theories help them to create a parallel reality where they are the authorities.
Sounds a bit ironic, no?
But perhaps it’s not as counterintuitive as it might appear. For someone who’s life is already deeply circumscribed by strict edicts and taboos from an invisible sky daddy, the desire to take control for oneself in some area of life must be overwhelming. And since it’s hardly safe to rebel against someone who is omniscient and omnipotent, resentment against government provides an alternative outlet. Add in the heightened level of intrusion into everyday life that’s necessary to control coronavirus, and you’ve got a perfect storm of discontent.
Concordia professor André Gagné adds that Canadian groups are taking a page from the playbook of American evangelical culture, where rugged individualism is the order of the day. It’s a “got mine, screw you” philosophy that leaves little room for ethics of community that aim to ensure everyone is protected, and it’s uniquely unhelpful in the context of pandemic prevention.
Apocalyptic thinking, too, plays a role. Conspiracy groups like QAnon present innocuous pieces of modern technology (like 5G towers or vaccines) as sinister vehicles for social control. That’s a narrative that dovetails well with End Times prophecies about one-world government and the Mark of the Beast.
Such misinformation is spreading beyond the confines of specific fringe churches, though. Montreal’s La Presse commissioned a poll that suggested nearly one-fifth of Quebecers believe COVID-19 was created to increase government’s control of the population. Almost a quarter think the virus was synthesized in a laboratory, and 35% believe the media is spreading false information about it.
Interestingly, those same conspiracy theories tend to draw in New-Age, back-to-nature ideologues as easily as the traditional God-and-guns authoritarians. Vivek Venkatesh, UNESCO’s co-chair in Prevention of Radicalization and Violent Extremism, says it’s the underlying logic of freedom that brings them together:
I think in Canada, we’re sort of used to a much more centrist approach. Most of our governments have a very centrist way of thinking. But with bipartisan politics, as we’re seeing, you find that there seems to be a coming together of ideals which are anti-government and which don’t necessarily fall under exclusively a left-wing or right-wing ideology… You think of curbing of freedoms, freedom of expression, for example, as being phenomena that would be attractive to people for both the left-wing and right-wing ideologies.
Whether they’re balking at mandatory vaccinations or Heather Has Two Mommies in their kids’ school libraries, they’re seeking more control from within the context of an ideology that has exceedingly strict rules for how to live a proper life. When the government’s rules clash with the rules of their ideology, it creates some powerful anxiety.
But experts worry that such anxiety could escalate into outright violence. Reports of threatening online behavior have increased by more than 450% over last year, according to the Sûreté du Québec and arrests have been made for threats against Quebec’s Premier François Legault, public health director Horacio Arruda, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The threat hasn’t moved into the physical world yet, but experts on both sides of the Canada-US border are watching warily. Hopefully events will remain non-violent, but Montpetit and other experts he’s consulted say that’s far from certain: As known right-wing figures try to revitalize their followers and expand their audiences, they’re inclined to use bombastic, often militaristic language.
The next major event for the conspiracy crowd in Quebec has explicitly religious overtones: Slated for mid-October, Montreal’s Action pour la Liberté is being billed as a “demonstration — gospel concert” featuring talks from several Quebecois preachers known in evangelical circles as supporters of the anti-mask movement. The event is being backed by Studio ThéoVox, an explicitly religious news outlet that claims to examine news “from a biblical perspective” with a particular focus on COVID conspiracies in recent months.
Even if the event remains non-violent, there’s still great potential for harm in any large gathering of people who flatly refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. And, because we all know how transmission works by now, we know that the harm isn’t limited to those refusing to mask up; the disease will spread through the community, impacting the vulnerable and drawing out the second-wave quarantine measures even longer than necessary.
If only they’d thrown off God’s meaningless rules instead.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Jonathan for the link)