Lawrence Witko doesn’t actually want Justin Trudeau dead, he swears. Nor does he really want to kill all Muslims, moderate or otherwise, or hope for the mass killing of Palestinian children. “I hate violence, period. I don’t want to have to be ranting on like this,” Witko says.
In the physical world, Witko is a 65-year-old caretaker and erstwhile corrections officer who may well abhor violence and love carpentry. Online, though, it is a very different story. For roughly a year, Witko has been posting commentary to the Facebook page of Never Again Canada, a stridently pro-Zionist website that has become a hotbed of anti-Trudeau and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Witko is among the page’s most prolific contributors.
“Trudeau and his precious [wife] Sophie are both liars and teach their children to be the same way. Mark my words on the wall, this piece of s–t will turn on his own and be as treacherous as Sadam [sic] Hussein was to the Iraquis [sic]. Trudeau has to go—one way or another, he has to go . . . Lock n Load . . . ” Witko wrote on the Never Again Canada Facebook page on Dec. 10. Muslims, he wrote in a typical post, “are a useless, diseased race of subhumans who are bent on destroying Western society. Witko says he was visited by the RCMP about two weeks after his “Lock N Load” post, though he wasn’t charged with anything.
He was first drawn to Never Again Canada for what he calls “the truth”: that the country’s left-leaning federal and provincial governments, along with its mainstream media, have purposefully minimized the threat of Islam to Western civilization. Witko, like many of the roughly 25,000 people who have “liked” the page, believe the Muslim threat has escalated considerably with the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in October. At the very least, they believe Trudeau is doing radical Islam’s bidding by allowing Muslims into his government and, with the Syrian refugees, into the country he governs.
Such commentary has long been relegated to the more pungent recesses of the Internet and online commentary sections of news publications—and it remains there, for the most part. Yet politicians on both sides of the spectrum acknowledge that hateful and at times violent commentary has, in the words of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, “become a little more socially acceptable now.”
It became such a concern for Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta’s populist Wildrose Party and the leader of the province’s official Opposition, that he stopped his relentless criticism of the province’s left-wing NDP government long enough to ask his Facebook followers to stop threatening to murder Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
“Over the last few days, I’ve seen far too many hateful and even violent social media posts directed toward our political opponents,” Jean wrote in a Facebook missive two weeks before Christmas. “This needs to stop. These kinds of comments cross all bounds of respect and decency and have absolutely no place in our political discourse. This is not how Albertans behave.”
Jean says he felt compelled to go public after being struck by the number and nature of the threats against Notley. They began, Jean said, shortly after the Notley government introduced a farm safety law that extended compensation rights to farm workers. Bill 6, as it is known, sparked demonstrations from Alberta farmers, who worried it would prohibit them from hiring temporary labourers and recruiting volunteers.
“I’ve never had to do anything like this in my political career,” says Jean, a 12-year veteran of federal and provincial politics, of his note. “There was open hatred and actual threats of life. I even got threats myself after I posted the message. It shows the level some people will go to. It’s not helpful. It absorbs the importance of the discussion itself.”
The RCMP, meanwhile, has seen an uptick in threats against Trudeau, according to police sources. “It’s somewhat expected, because Trudeau is anathema to right-wing extremists, and right-wing extremists tend to be the most explicit and reckless of those who make these kinds of threats,” says a former member of the RCMP’s threat-assessment group, a national security unit that safeguards domestic and visiting political leaders, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he remains a member of the RCMP.
Much of the rhetoric comes from a range of online groups whose ideologies vary as much as their popularity. Pegida Canada and Canadian Defence League, for example, are offshoots of European anti-Islamic groups. Others, including Separation of Alberta from the Liberal East, have specific Canadian political goals. Others still are Zionist in nature, including the Jewish Defence League and Christians United For Israel. With its 25,000 followers, Never Again Canada looms large.
The Never Again Canada Facebook page ﬁrst appeared in mid-2014. The group, such as it is, bills itself as an “organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, propaganda, terror and Jew hatred in Canada . . . Hatred is like cancer, the more you don’t treat it and ignore it, the worse it gets.” Its page, often updated several times an hour, is almost uniquely dedicated to criticism of Justin Trudeau—sometimes referred to as “Justine”—and Islam. (“Never Again” is an apparent reference to the slogan of the Jewish Defence League, the U.S.-based militant Zionist organization, which has a chapter in Canada.)
The commentators on Never Again are a hodgepodge of Zionists, former and current military, Christian militants, the occasional white nationalist—an irony, given that the white nationalist movement isn’t typically very charitable toward Jews—and many anti-Muslim types like Witko and Larry Langenauer. A 67-year-old small business owner, Langenauer says he began posting on Never Again’s Facebook page four months ago.
On Dec. 10 Langenauer wrote that “the most convincing non-confidence statement” against Trudeau would be to shoot him. He has made similar threats about the Saudi-born Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, who was recently appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. (In Canada, uttering threats is an offence punishable by up to five years in jail. Committing hate speech is punishable by up to two years in jail.)
“I guess anyone that feels that way is probably thinking that [Trudeau] is the man who almost single-handedly, with the people in office with him, has enabled violent immigrants,” Langenauer said in a recent telephone interview from his Montreal home. “It’s their responsibility. Why would Canada be exempt from this type of behaviour by the radical Islamic immigrants? They say they’re refugees, they’re not really refugees. People are going to resent it, and eventually they will act upon it toward the people whom they feel are responsible.”
Never Again Canada was founded by Abraham Shomer, a web developer based in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill. “We provide a platform for ideas,” Shomer said in an email. “Our administrators include men and women who are either Jewish, Christian, atheist or Muslim. We do not condone any violence or threats of violence whatsoever against any person or group.”
Shomer says the site has three million weekly “post reaches”—the number of people who have seen its posts. About 85 per cent of its audience is in Canada, Shomer adds.
A notice went up on the site shortly after Maclean’s contacted Shomer about threats against Trudeau. “Such comments will not be tolerated on our page,” read the declaration. “We encourage our fans to report potential threats to our national security to CSIS and the RCMP directly.” It went on to suggest that these threats were the work of “radical Islamic groups seeking to defame our good name.”
The reason behind the quick escalation, and breadth, of the rhetoric is a matter of some discussion. The Internet has long been a ready forum for instant, anonymous emotional gratification—though by insisting that its users use their real name, Facebook has made things a little less anonymous.
For many critics, there are dangerous similarities between the mass migration of Muslim refugees to Europe, and the economic and social challenges it has created, and the Liberal government’s plan to allow Syrian refugees into the country. Economic woes often go hand in hand with anti-immigration and refugee sentiment.
“There may be a bit of a gestalt, where you have Donald Trump in the U.S. and the things he says about Muslims, combined with the attacks in Paris, combined with some really divisive rhetoric on all sides during the last federal election,” says Nenshi.
Then there is the change in Canada’s political status quo wrought by that election. Following the 2011 federal election, the Liberal party was a leaderless shambles, having lost its third consecutive election to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. With the progressive vote split between the sagging Liberals and a resurgent NDP, Harper’s Conservatives were seemingly well positioned to win another at least. And yet four years later, the Liberals are now ensconced in power, while all but one of the provinces have leftist or centrist governments. Saskatchewan is the lone conservative holdout.
“Canada has 1½ conservative premiers,” says political commentator Ezra Levant. (The half in question is Christy Clark, British Columbia’s more right-leaning Liberal premier.) “Everyone else is on the left. The federal government, the courts, the media, popular culture, universities and student groups: they’re all on the left.”
Levant saw a business opportunity in the dearth of conservative voices in the country. Last February, he launched The Rebel, a conservative news and commentary site. The Rebel reports extensively and obsessively on the supposed spread and threat of political Islam. And it spends a considerable amount of bandwidth decrying, as one Rebel contributor put it last fall, the “decadent and debauched leftist ideology” of Justin Trudeau. While the site echoes many of the concerns of the extreme right, its contributors do not resort to threats, or trade in that kind of violent rhetoric.
The uninitiated visitor to The Rebel might be forgiven for thinking that under the Trudeau government, Canada has gone from being a staunch critic of radical Islam to radical Islam’s anteroom—a place where political correctness stifles criticism of Islam, and radicalized Muslims spread sharia law and tuberculosis on an unsuspecting citizenry.
“I’m not actually scared of being killed by a terrorist,” says Levant. “If anyone in Toronto would be, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was me, because I speak against Islam. But I think the likelihood of that happening is very low. The likelihood of political Islam changing our culture is not low. It is 100 per cent. It is already happening,” he says.
Rebel business is booming, according to Levant. “We’ve had a number of days [with] over 100,000 visits, and the trend is up. I thought things would have peaked with the election in October, but actually they continued to grow, partly because of what is happening federally, partly because of what is happening [with the Notley government] in Alberta, and because of what is going on with the Muslim migration to Europe,” he says.
Levant steadfastly denounces violent threats against anyone almost as quickly as he laughs off the many he says he’s received as a result of his work. But Rebel reporting and commentary is frequently used favourably as fodder on many anti-Trudeau and anti-Muslim forums, Pegida and Never Again Canada included. Levant himself isn’t above indulging in the milder invective seen on these sites.
Trudeau “is stupid. He’s the kind of guy who says, ‘I don’t know pi to the 18th decibel point.’ He’s stupid. Do you think he knows the difference between Hamas and hummus? He is stupid,” went one typical Levant rant, unleashed during a recent phone interview.
Levant suggests that those threatening Trudeau, Notley et al. are just “venting.” Indeed, when pressed on his online postings, Langenauer said he doesn’t actually wish any ill on Trudeau. “That’s just anger. That’s just venting. I don’t think anybody should be killed for any reason. I don’t even believe in hunting. My wife and I are vegetarians,” he told Maclean’s.
“You typically see most of [this appear] early in a leader’s mandate, and then dissipate as the extremists become distracted by other events and issues,” says the RCMP source.
Though Lawrence Witko says Trudeau is a dangerous nuisance who should be removed “by any means necessary,” as he has written, he says he is too old to do anything himself. “Let’s put it this way. If [Trudeau’s] plane went down, I would probably be doing the happy dance.” An assassination, he says, “would take balls. I’m too old for that. I’m 65, with a herniated disk and a bum ticker.”
Instead, his plan is to move north to live in the bush, well away from an Internet connection and the governing Liberal elites. He recently applied for a firearms acquisition certificate. A man’s got to eat, after all.
—with Charlie Gillis