Ezra Levant: The Rebel's unrepentant commander - Macleans.ca

Ezra Levant: The Rebel’s unrepentant commander

How Ezra Levant built The Rebel: the angry, hate-filled, unapologetic and surprisingly successful ‘Breitbart North’

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A portrait of Ezra Lavent. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

A portrait of Ezra Levant. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Minus-18 in the middle of a Calgary cold snap be damned, about 1,000 Albertans trundled into a downtown hotel ballroom to grow somehow more outraged over Rachel Notley’s carbon tax. Many were already feeling the bite of economic downturn, starved for contracts or unemployed. They brandished signs, mostly against the NDP, but many questioning the reality of human-caused climate change.

But that’s only about half what they got at this rally. The other main targets of scorn were in the room, holding notepads and cameras.

The licks came steadily from speaker after speaker: conservative politicians, hard-up oilfield workers and commentators. The media are sneering, smug elites, the crowd was told. They’re in bed with the NDP and Justin Trudeau, “squeal” about political correctness, and will put protesting conservatives “through the wood-chipper.”

An occasional oilfield worker and advocate dubbed Bernard “the Roughneck” Hancock, who encourages right-wingers to hack the Alberta government, said journalists feed “off the worst in human nature.” He mused about throwing his shoe at the row of TV cameras at the Westin hall’s rear. “Let’s save our vitriol for the news media,” he said. Attendees obliged, some swinging around to direct their boos at reporters.

But no one can lead a media hate-in like the rally’s host, who also happened to be the lone media executive in attendance. Ezra Levant, Rebel Media’s self-styled rebel commander, singled out the CBC as taxpayer-funded cowards and “disgusting smear merchants.” The cherub-cheeked man in a navy blazer deputized listeners to tell friends of the struggles they’d heard about that afternoon. “I am worried they will not learn that from the enemy media who are here today, the partisan media,” said the leader of a crew of activist-journalists, many of whom self-identify as such.

The onstage stream of invective against journalists was like something out of a Donald Trump campaign event. So was what happened at the prior week’s Rebel-hosted rally in Edmonton, when a few hundred in a larger crowd chanted “lock her up” as federal Conservative leadership hopeful Chris Alexander laced into Notley’s policies. Many news commentators and top politicians in Alberta and Ottawa, including conservatives, denounced the behaviour.

This gave Levant more of what he craves: evidence of an insidious thought chorus by media and political establishments, condemning the grassroots folks—all explained on his nightly online Ezra Levant Show.

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In an age when news outlets are bleeding financially, Levant has forged a path to Canadian media success: give ardent conservatives a newsfeed unpolluted by thoughts from the other side, and cry battle against the malevolent forces that may disagree. The online-only Rebel has gone from YouTube videos in his living room to a growing team of 28 daily employees plus contributors in the two years since Levant launched it immediately after the demise of Sun News Network and his nightly cable show. Rebel has more than 539,000 subscribers on YouTube, and a list of more than 260,000 supporters who receive email blasts about the latest “SHOCK VIDEO” and call to action or to give Rebel money.

Within two weeks in December, Rebel crowd-funded more than $200,000 for a studio upgrade. Although his extremism puts off moderate conservatives (he despises them accordingly), some federal Conservative leadership candidates come a-courting Levant’s throngs, and right-wing Alberta politicians fear invoking the mob wrath Levant can unleash.

So what if only a minority of Canadians don’t believe in a warming planet or welcoming Syrian refugees, and barely one-fifth told pollsters they’d have backed Trump over Hillary Clinton? For Levant, those are untapped markets Rebel can claim largely to itself.

Bernard “the Roughneck” Hancock speaks at the the Rebel Media rally that was against carbon taxing in Calgary, Alberta on Sunday, December 11, 2016. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Bernard “the Roughneck” Hancock speaks at the the Rebel Media rally against carbon taxing in Calgary, Alberta on Sunday, December 11, 2016. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

In his Calgary audience, unemployed millwright Ben Cohen’s sign asked about the rising suicide rate in oil-bust Alberta, but he wanted to know why he could only hear questions against the climate change scientific consensus from one media source. “Every news organization has a bias, but The Rebel seeks to look for the truth,” he says. Next to him, Scott Broatch chimed in with his nickname for Global TV: Glo-bias. “They’re so left it’s pathetic. Never reports on the good things,” says Broatch, wearing the black parka and ballcap branded by the construction rental company that laid him off in May. He’s convinced the Alberta carbon levy is a tax grab—nothing to do with a not-really-warming climate (so he’s read on social media).

The crowd was literally buying Levant’s twin message against politicians and media. When Rebel staff and volunteers roamed the aisles with empty cardboard buckets and their commander asked for donations to defray the event’s costs (room rental, security, travel from Toronto for Levant and crew), Rebel loyalists rapidly filled the buckets with dollar bills. Mostly 20s, some 50s, from an audience thick with unemployed or barely-working Albertans. Helpers had to empty full buckets to collect from more fans reaching out with outstretched fistfuls of dollars.

While the Sun News bid to create a Canadian version of Fox News was an utter flop, Levant has thrived with Breitbart North. He’s followed the formula that has made Breitbart.com a major hit in the United States: caustic conservatism, treating Muslim immigration as a ticking bomb, endless pokes at anything they can brand political correctness, and unremitting support of Trump—while Breitbart’s CEO Steve Bannon became the president’s senior adviser down there, Rebel up here trademarked “Make Canada Great Again” last month for sale on website-branded merchandise.

“These are people who, like me, share a sense of mission,” Levant tells Maclean’s. There’s something else in Breitbart that inspires his Rebel: “being anti-media media. They’re against the Media Party too.” That’s a term he coined to deride Canada’s mainstream media as too liberal and chummy. Levant’s own enterprise does it differently (for Canada, at least), complete with petitions, rallies and modified Trump slogans on toques. He’s finding success and a solid audience on terms that few Canadian journalists would covet or even recognize. But they’re patently Ezra Levant’s.


Sheila Gunn Reid interacts with the crowd at the Rebel Media rally that was against carbon taxing and Premier Rachel Notley. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Sheila Gunn Reid interacts with the crowd at the Rebel Media rally that was against carbon taxing and Premier Rachel Notley. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Levant registered the website TheRebel.media on Feb. 9, 2015, four days before the long-anticipated yet abrupt shutdown of Sun News by parent company Quebecor. It was the second media dud Levant had helped launch—Western Standard, his attempt at a Canadian conservative magazine, stopped printing in 2007 before its third birthday. Quebecor’s conservative cable news channel, for which Levant moved his family to Toronto from his Calgary hometown, lasted less than four years, after dismal ratings and reported losses of more than $46 million. Levant’s hour-long daily shows were its biggest attention-getter for stunts like chainsawing a tree on Earth Day, as well as varied apologies for slurring a Chiquita Brands executive, Justin Trudeau and his parents, and the Roma people (“a culture synonymous with swindlers,” he’d said on air). By re-emerging online, Levant realized, he would avoid regulators, the broadcast standards council and cable placement.

It was also media on the cheap: a studio and cameras that cost far less than what Sun built, and interviews by Skype instead of satellite. He plunged his Sun News severance into the venture, gathered Sun exiles like fellow host Brian Lilley, and by mid-February 2015 this team was pumping out video rants against Ontario sex-ed education, Trudeau, niqabs and Islamic extremism overseas.

“If you would have told me two years ago that there was this big an audience for ‘the other side of the story’ in the media, I’d have said, ‘I wish,’ ” Levant says.

Three months after launching, voters back west gave Levant a gift: an Alberta NDP government. That June he hosted “emergency town halls” around the province, with a slide presentation on various left-wing and activist backgrounds of Notley’s newcomers. We need to fight back, he told the folks. He’d need donations and Facebook shares for his fledgling enterprise. By autumn, he added an Alberta bureau chief. Sheila Gunn Reid was a stay-at-home mother in Edmonton’s rural outskirts, who had never published outside social media but her rapid invective and digging skills had amassed her 6,000 Twitter followers. She often wears anti-NDP shirts during Rebel reports, casually calls them “jerks” and has pumped out a free e-book about the NDP called The Destroyers. She now has more than 48,000 followers, among the most in Alberta media. She spits fire online but is shy and polite in person, refers to baby booties she knit to gift to a Wildrose MLA. At the Calgary rally, Levant introduced Gunn Reid as his local star. When a crowd member yelled “lock them up,” Gunn Reid repeated it into the microphone, with a giggle. “What we’re doing, people want,” she explains.

In early 2016, after relentless attacks by The Rebel, the NDP disagreed that it’s a media outlet, barring it from news conferences. Levant threatened to sue. Alberta’s press gallery backed The Rebel, and Notley’s office quickly reversed the ban. Gunn Reid regained legislature access, but after her organization’s December protest from the building’s steps, Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson reconsidered defending it. “By organizing a highly partisan rally, Levant has abandoned any pretense of The Rebel being a legitimate news outlet,” he wrote.

Other threats or attacks on The Rebel have stirred its declared enemy to come to its defence: news organizations and even the Trudeau cabinet stood up for Gunn Reid’s right to attend last November’s United Nations climate conference in Morocco, and journalists expressed revulsion when an Edmonton protester at an anti-Trump women’s march punched Gunn Reid and her camera. But even in Rebel‘s outrage against violence against media, it had to swipe a perceived media villain, with questionable allegations against‎ a wire photographer apparently part of the vast media conspiracy.


Ezra Levant, from 2011, as the host of a show on the now-defunct Sun News Network. (Michael Peake/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)

Ezra Levant, from 2011, as the host of a show on the now-defunct Sun News Network. (Michael Peake/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)

Levant brands Rebel a “fearless source of news, opinion and activism.” It can behave more like a political action committee than anything else in modern Canadian journalism. One Lilley column listing Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne scandals came with a petition urging her to resign, a FireWynne.ca website, a billboard outside her constituency office and a lawn sign giveaway. The Rebel has urged boycotts with specialized URLs against corporations like Telus, for tweeting an endorsement of national carbon pricing, and restaurant chain Earls for switching to Certified Humane beef from outside Alberta. Telus apologized for its tweet; Earls backtracked.

Meanwhile, everyone who signs a petition gets automatically signed up for Rebel’s regular emails, compiled on software normally used by political campaigns. His database casts a wider net than opt-in email info, also scraping data from Twitter and Facebook followers, Levant says.

He notched another campaign victory of sorts in November, when Alberta Tory MLA Sandra Jansen quit her party’s leadership race and joined the NDP, citing harassment from right-wingers—The Rebel included. Levant had secured SandraJansen.ca and redirected it to a Gunn Reid piece arguing she’s too progressive and would make the Tories “the NDP in a blue dress.”

“I see them as bullies, and I think people are afraid to call them out, because as soon as you do you become a target, just like I did,” Jansen says. Alberta conservative politicians have approached The Rebel cautiously. They’ll make appearances on Levant’s show and rallies, but come prepared for right-field antics. The “lock her up” chant was condemned by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who attended the Edmonton rally, and PC leadership contender Jason Kenney, who skipped it. Levant criticized both in kind. “We don’t want to incur the wrath of The Rebel army. They do send a mob in any direction,” one political operator says. “They can play the role of conservative enforcer,” says another. Neither wanted their name used.

The NDP has taken to largely ignoring Rebel commentaries, though a few government staffers spent a December Saturday watching the carbon tax protest and tweeting about the rogue chant and some out-there signs (which Levant alleges were lefty plants). “We’re living rent-free in the minds of a lot of these New Democrats,” Levant says.

If there wasn’t an NDP government to cover, Gunn Reid reckons she’d focus instead on “culture war issues”—tempests over school curriculum, gender issues, and the like.

That fare is well covered by her Rebel colleagues, and gets more clicks. Lauren Southern, a 21-year-old former Libertarian party candidate and anti-feminist, became a social media star when she filmed the reaction to her holding up a “There is no rape culture in the west” sign at a SlutWalk march (1.6 million YouTube views).

Faith Goldy, a former Sun News commentator, unearthed a Fredericton high school staff’s concerns about bullying among some Syrian migrant students—”Sharia creep,” she called it—and it got more even-handed pickup by some other Canadian outlets (156,000 views). Rebel’s biggest hit machine is Gavin McInnes, the Vice co-founder who loves to offend with Rebel rants against single moms (872,000 views) Meryl Streep (798,000), Confederate flag ban supporters (585,000) and Jews who don’t embrace Santa (90,000).

Rebel’s YouTube channel has netted a total of 136 million views, peaking with 19 million in last November. Levant won’t talk revenue specifics, but does say YouTube ads provide Rebel’s third-largest income source. Second is his website’s paid subscribers (he won’t disclose how many) for his nightly members-only program and weekly shows by McInnes, Southern and others. The top earner is crowd-funding, through the ongoing donations Rebel solicits at the bottom of each story, and appeals for special projects like studio upgrades or correspondents’ travel assignments.

Recipients of Levant’s email list are readily activated. He blasted out a note one evening about Lauren Southern’s new book Barbarians (the subtitle casts Islam and immigrants in that lot), and by the next morning those self-published 90 pages became Amazon.ca’s No. 2 selling book.

Levant has been adding staff and correspondents steadily. No bank loans, and no major investors, he says—and, the thing he’s proudest of all, no government funding like the CBC relies on, or like the periodical grants many magazines (including Maclean’s) receive, or like the support the Postmedia newspaper chain has appealed for. “We did it with all our own revenues, which surprised even me,” he says, riding in a hailed black limousine sedan from the Calgary airport to his rally.

“I think it’s that people can’t find the other side of the story in Canada easily. The National Post has gone wobbly. Sun News is gone. Where are you going to get your news that is not Trudeau-flavoured these days?” There’s lots of “good news” online from the United States, he says, “but where do you get it from Canada? The market is so lopsided that there is really no one else treating conservative news consumers even with respect, let alone dedication.”

He gestures to the frigid weather outside, and begins a “Media Party” mimic. “And when we say we’re going to replace the electricity when it’s -20° with solar panels, you’ve got to shut up and take that. And that global warming has hit us, you’ve got to shut up and take that.” He ends with some Peter Mansbridge mockery and a smirk.

For all his rants about media groupthink, Levant and colleagues absorb much of the lingo that dwells in the echo chamber of hard-right U.S. outlets: globalists, “cuckservatives” (a portmanteau referring to mainstream conservatives as philosophical cuckolds) and “social justice warriors”; “fake news” is just the stuff the mainstream guys pump out. Two of his four show hosts, McInnes and Tiffany Gabbay, are based in the United States, as is about one-quarter of Rebel’s web traffic, according to web metrics firm Alexa. Rebel shows often feature interviews with other friendly U.S. media voices, commonly from Breitbart.

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Steve Bannon once drew heat for calling Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right”—the moniker adopted by a loose collection of mostly online agitators and white nationalists. Levant states “we have a more diverse group of journalists than most,” noting some Muslim contributors and visible minority staff. Content-wise, Rebel takes routine shots at African-American activism and Muslims, a tone that will only sharpen with a new London correspondent who is also head of the group Pegida U.K., an offshoot of the German crusaders against western “Islamicisation.”

Behind The Rebel paywall last November, McInnes’s show featured a chummy interview with Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader who coined “alt-right” and had days earlier ended a group conference with a “Hail Trump!” shout that some attendees met with Nazi salutes. In the segment, Spencer said they were having fun, being “a little provocative.” McInnes then asked: “I work for a Jew named Ezra Levant. How much does that make your blood boil?” Spencer replied: “It doesn’t make my blood boil at all. The fact that a Jew—he’s a neo-conservative, as I understand… the fact he has you on, you’re kind of pushing things in our direction in your own way. The fact I’m on here and we can talk respectfully, that’s great.”

Weeks after that aired, Levant says he hadn’t watched it, but heard about it and found McInnes’s question hilarious. He’s no longer in the business of forced apologies or skittishness, and trusts his fellow Rebels. He doesn’t tell hosts whom to interview, or vet commentators’ scripts. “Because I know Gavin McInnes, I’m not worried about who he has on the show.”

If Levant puts his faith in the media judgments of a deferential interviewer of a white nationalist leader, and the organizer of an anti-Islam group, who doesn’t he trust? Among that camp is Michael Coren, another ex-Sun TV host. Coren was contracted early on for a few Rebel video rants at $50 a pop. But after Coren penned a National Post column criticizing protests against Ontario sex-ed curriculum, Levant cut him loose. “I think you’re off-brand with The Rebel,” the commander emailed.

Now a writer for the Toronto Star not the Sun, Coren worries about the irresponsibility of Levant’s product. “Anyone can find a video of a group of migrants acting badly. That doesn’t say very much about the huge number of migrants trying to carve out a decent life,” he says. “We have to be very careful with this stuff. You don’t want to play on people’s fears and anxieties.”

To this band of Rebels, this sort of language is the scourge of political correctness. “I think ‘offensive’ is the language of the left—’I can’t control my emotions, so [you should] control what you said,’ ” Gunn Reid says, when asked if any Rebel content offends her.

Levant tells Maclean’s he used to find other media simply biased. His view has darkened. Last fall, he began wielding the term lügenpresse—German for “lying press”—around the time it began surfacing among white nationalists and as a Trump crowd taunt at media.

It’s a loaded, illiberal term the Nazis used to smear the non-Nazi press, and a word that has been revived by Pegida and other German anti-immigrant movements. But it’s emerged elsewhere as well, by German critics of free press in the First World War, and by East German Communists. And on a supporter’s sign at Levant’s last Edmonton rally.

“To say lügenpresse is a Nazi word is to say schnitzel is a Nazi word,” Levant says. “It is so perfectly accurate, and it gets such a reaction from lying journalists. Oh, they hate it.”

Basically, every organization that isn’t firmly on the right with him is against him. They lie. They destroy. This, from a pundit who lost separate libel cases in 2010 and 2014 for his commentary related to his human rights tribunal ordeals—in both cases the judge ruled he showed a “reckless disregard for the truth.” (He lost an appeal for the most recent one last month, ordered to pay $15,000 in costs on top of $150,000 damages and costs the lower court ordered. He’s asked supporters to donate for a Supreme Court appeal.)

A compulsive dislike for non-right media has much to do with Levant’s embrace of Donald Trump, though the president’s stance on immigration, climate and energy certainly appeal to him and colleagues. He’s written a book on how Trump will thump Trudeau (an excerpt is now on Breitbart).

Levant recalls initially being shocked when Trump bashed Sen. John McCain’s prisoner-of-war background, and when he was misogynistic toward broadcaster Megyn Kelly and didn’t apologize. Trump’s numbers, though, kept rising. “Then I got it,” Levant says—Trump’s real opponent wasn’t Hillary Clinton, but media expecting him to atone for nastiness. “To beat the media establishment you’ve got to be brutal and ruthless and incorrigible. Never apologize, never, because otherwise they’ll devour you.”


People attend a Rebel Media rally against the carbon tax and Premier Rachel Notley in Calgary on Sunday, December 11, 2016. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

People attend a Rebel Media rally against the carbon tax and Premier Rachel Notley in Calgary on Sunday, December 11, 2016. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Media highlighted the “lock her up” chant at Rebel’s rally, in part because there was little particularly new by December 2016 about Alberta economic hurt, carbon tax opposition or anti-NDP rallies; plus, there’s high curiosity about anything vaguely Trumpish penetrating Canada.

Levant chastized them for not focusing on his rally’s content, for two straight nights on his self-titled show, where he treaded lightly on that content and instead reacted to the reaction by news reports and politicians.

“How about just once, we all tell the media-political industrial complex to f–k off?” he ended his rant.

Within days, The Rebel was selling “lock her up” T-shirts, and announced the following week’s rally in Calgary. He hadn’t initially planned it, Levant explains, until that media response.

“As a signal to Canadians that you don’t have to do what Peter Mansbridge says anymore,” he says.

The second rally drew Conservative leadership candidates tacking to the party’s right flank, like climate change skeptic Brad Trost, Kellie Leitch, as well as Chris Alexander again, who had told most outlets he was mortified by “lock her up.” He told this audience his donors and “establishment types” warned him not to return. “I’m not going to fold to a bunch of politically correct people,” he said.

This time, Calgary news reports played it largely straight, leaving little for Levant to pillory. But he found his whipping post on Twitter: a twentysomething radio reporter. “We had a controlled experiment of the media. And Haley Jarmain screwed up,” Levant says.

Jarmain is a university student who also reports for Newstalk 770 radio. After live-tweeting the Calgary rally and filing her radio story, she tweeted about the insults she’d faced that afternoon but excluded from her report: “But I got death threats. Was laughed at. Told that I’m less of a human for my job.” Levant and supporters on Twitter pushed back skeptically: why didn’t she call police about threats on her life, or the rally security? She explained later, on Twitter and her radio station, it amounted to one guy telling her “you’re dead” in the foyer, and didn’t want to risk a he-said/she-said by reporting to the authorities.

The next day on The Rebel, Levant posted a 14-minute piece skewering her as a left-wing, social justice reporter, and promised to go over security tapes with her to catch this would-be-murderer. Voice oozing with sarcasm, he announced a cash reward, and acquired HaleyJarmain.ca and HaleyJarmain.com to redirect to his video. Levant’s Twitter backers mobbed further: called her attention-craving, a faker, part of the lügenpresse. (She and her station declined to comment to Maclean’s.)

Journalists tweeted in Jarmain’s defense and called Levant’s stunt disgusting and bullying. That’s just more media tribalism, he says. But journalists aren’t the only ones who worry about this dark side of Levant. “You want to be controversial; you want to hold powerful people to account for their action,” says Kory Teneycke, a longtime friend and former Sun News president. “But on the flip side, I think you get in trouble if you target people who are smaller than yourself.”

Coren says: “I’ve seen him do and say things that are incredibly hurtful, but I don’t think he actually feels it. He doesn’t know the effect he’s having on people.”

He scraped gutter mud a week earlier, too. An Alberta labour leader criticized a claim about his Edmonton rally size, and Levant threatened to post his profile from dating site Ashley Madison.

To call Levant perennially unrepentant is to call fish damp. That young reporter was “an embedded activist,” he says, the paragon of media skullduggery. “You know what?” he says, as though addressing her. “You can own that for the rest of your life as long as I have the money to keep the domain HaleyJarmain.com. She’ll own that lie. Or, we’ll catch the killer. Either way, it’s a win.”