Anti-Maskers Are Trying to Recruit People of Colour So They Don't Look Racist

Despite making common ground with racist agitators, some within the anti-lockdown movement are desperate to distance themselves from the far-right.
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Anti Mask protestors march through the streets in Aylmer, Ontario, on November 7, 2020. - Over 1000 protestors marched through the streets the small town of 9000 people to demand an end to covid restrictions. (Photo by GEOFF ROBINS / AFP

Anti-maskers are attempting to recruit people of colour in order to defend the movement from accusations of being far-right.

The attempts come, unsurprisingly, after a few months of bad press for the anti-lockdown movement. As of late, some within the group have been elevating longstanding far-right agitators like Kevin J. Johnston, who once faced hate crime charges and recently marched with tiki torches in Edmonton in an apparent nod to the Charlottesville white supremacist rally.

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Even anti-maskers seem to have realized this is, to put it mildly, an extremely bad look. To counter this, a Calgary organizer has been making a plea in several anti-lockdown Telegram groups. The post asks the anti-maskers to share the message with their “ethnic friends and family on all (their) platforms” in the hopes more people of colour will join the anti-lockdown movement. 

“Specifically we are looking for natives, asians, blacks, Hispanics, east Indians, (sic) and basically anyone that's not white that would like to come to our rallies to support our rights and freedoms,” it reads. “As I’m sure you know we are trying to get the masses to realize that we are not a bunch of racist white supremacists and we stand for love and freedom and we need the world to understand this.”

“We are asking if these different ethnicities would be willing to march with us while possibly carrying banners if they are comfortable doing that.”

At the bottom, it leaves an email address—with the username of the “ethnic coalition”—in the hopes that some people of colour would join the movement. The people behind the email would only talk to VICE World News if the reporter signed a contract that forced the interview to be published in full and kept in chronological order, so the questions went unanswered.

Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice activist, told VICE World News that this sort of recruitment ignores the fact that people of colour are disportionately hurt by the pandemic. 

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“COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity virus,” said Dosani. “We know it is having a significantly disproportionate impact on racialized communities and particularly people who are living in low-income areas and are essential workers.”

“We have to talk about how race is not the determinant of health outcomes, but racism is the determinant of health outcomes,” he added. “And everything that comes with racism in Canada, including white supremacy, needs to be included in these conversations.”

It's not just this one organizer on the hunt for anti-lockdown people of colour. On private Facebook pages and livestreams, anti-lockdown activists share theories, claiming the media intentionally only films and interviews the white people in the community. Recently, a well-known conspiracy theorist and organizer in the movement asked her followers to dig through photos of rallies, find images of non-white people there, and send them to her so she could use them as proof they exist among their ranks. (VICE World News has attended several anti-mask rallies, and while there are people of colour participating, the crowds skew overwhelmingly white.) 

However, according to Drew, an anti-fascist researcher, these efforts are not new. (Drew only uses his first name in media to avoid repercussions from the people he covers.)

“They have come up a few times in response to outside criticism or attacks from opposing activists, media, and politicians,” he told VICE World News. “There (have) also been attempts to reach out to diaspora activist communities that they try to fit into their conspiracy theorist worldview but without much success.” 

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Attempts include trying to recruit Sikhs in light of the farmers’ protests in India and getting anti-Chinese activists on board via the Hong Kong protests. Other efforts have taken place in anti-mask hubs like Toronto and Vancouver and are typically reactive. In some cases, reaching out was a result of seeing the size of Black Lives Matter rallies following George Floyd's murder, in others, it was for damage control. 

While the anti-masking movement doesn’t fit the traditional definition of “far-right,” it is impossible to ignore the hate within its ranks. Many of the very first anti-lockdown rallies were populated by far-right activists rallying under a different banner. Over time, the growing community has elevated figures who have been influential in the far-right or have a history of racism and have made common ground with far-right agitators and bigots. Perhaps most importantly, the conspiracies—like the Great Reset, or the New World Order—that are spread so widely within the movement almost always come back to anti-semitism or racism.

Quebec-based journalist Nora Loreto recently wrote about the connections between white supremacy and the anti-lockdown movement.

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“It's been obvious in Montreal who this movement is speaking to, and who is involved,” Loreto told VICE World News. “The rallies look an awful lot like the far-right protests that dotted our streets in 2017-2018 and it's not too surprising that now, with popular sentiment rising against the ineffective curfew, that anti-COVID lockdown activists would reach out to racialized youth to help limit negative PR.”

The Calgary man attempting to recruit “ethnic” people posted the message in at least four different anti-lockdown groups. Despite relaying his plea at least 50 times over, he never seemed to find the people of colour he was looking for.

“I’m sorry to do this but I’m going to spam the shit out of this group until I get more people of color and ethnic groups contacting me,” he wrote. “This is very important for our movement as we need people to understand that we are about love and freedom.”

Within the Telegram pages where the man spammed his posts—which have names like Keep Canada Free and We Are The Light—posts blaming Jews for the pandemic were common.

There are certainly racialized people within the anti-lockdown community, including a few who have taken on prominent roles. Some came into the group from the very beginning through the participation of religious movements; others, like some of those employed by Toronto Caribbean News (a confusing local outlet for the Caribbean community that is run by a white man and in 2020 shifted its content towards conspiracies) work to amplify conspiracies and the leaders of the movement. However, for the large part, the movement remains white as a bleached bone—and the group knows it.

“A Toronto anti-lockdown demonstration does not look like a typical walk through Toronto,” said Drew.

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.