Ugly Anti-Masker Protests Plague Canadian Election

Racist and sexist disruptions are disproportionately targeting Liberal rallies, and Conservative and NDP leaders publicly denounced the “disgusting” behaviour.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
anti-mask hecklers protesting a Liberal rally for Justin Trudeau
Protestors heckle Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a Liberal campaign event at VeriForm Inc. in Cambridge, Ontario, on August 29, 2021. (Photo by GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images)

Canadian anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protestors are starting to overrun Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s campaign by showing up to his rallies, screaming obscenities, yelling death threats, and hurling racist and misogynistic slurs at people of colour and women on site.

The protesters have attended almost every single Trudeau event since the election was called on Aug. 15. But on Friday, the situation was so bad in Bolton, Ontario, that Trudeau, 49, had to cancel his campaign event altogether, citing security concerns—a rare move in Canadian politics.

Advertisement

According to several reports, the crowd, which included anti-vaccine folks, raised signs that were sprawled with obscenities and anti-Trudeau messaging. Unmasked people wearing blue Conservative Party T-shirts were also in attendance. People voiced discontent with several of Trudeau’s initiatives, such as federal vaccine passports and the banning of e-cigarette flavours, CBC News reported.

“We all had a difficult year. Those folks out protesting, they had a difficult year too, and I know and I hear the anger, the frustration, perhaps the fear," Trudeau said. “But we must meet that anger with compassion.”

On Sunday, about 100 angry protestors chanted while the Liberal leader and Chrystia Freeland, a Liberal candidate and former deputy prime minister, announced the party’s climate policy. The event, in Cambridge, Ontario, was delayed by about an hour. 

Some folks chanted, “Lock him up,” while others banged on dumpsters and used air sirens to make noise, the Toronto Star reported. There was even a picture that said, “High Treason” alongside an image of Trudeau in front of a noose.

Advertisement

Women and racialized security detail had racist and sexist epithets hurled at them. 

Trudeau said he’s never experienced this level of anger during an election campaign—and as CBC reported, Trudeau wore a bulletproof vest in 2019 while at a rally in Mississauga, Ontario, as online posts condoning violence against him were increasing in number. 

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole denounced this year’s interruptions by saying that anti-Trudeau protesters are not welcome in his campaign. “If they were, they will no longer be involved with our campaign—full stop,” O’Toole said on Saturday.

“I strongly condemn any form of harassment and protest like we’ve seen,” O’Toole said. “We’re a democracy. We should be having a healthy and respectful debate of ideas and we have no time for people that bring in negativity to campaigning.”

The Conservative Party also tweeted on Sunday to condemn the protests.

“The threatening images and behaviour are disgusting. This needs to stop immediately. Canada is better than this,” the party said. 

Justin trudeau campaign bus with anti-mask protesters

A bus for media covering Justin Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister, leaves an outdoor rally after it is cancelled, in Bolton, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s unsurprising that the anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protesters are targeting Trudeau’s events, said Cary Wu, a York University sociologist who specialized in political culture. 

Advertisement

“Political ideology is the single best predictor of pandemic behaviours, including mask wearing and whether people are willing to get vaccinated, support lockdowns,” Wu said, adding that it makes sense, then, that politically-motivated people will do something equally politically-motivated to disrupt the election. 

“You see during the pandemic that it’s very political. That’s why with the election you see a strong interplay between pandemic groups and campaigns,” Wu said. 

It’s possible that the protests, which have so far disproportionately targeted Liberal events, will harm Liberals more so than Conservatives at the polls, according to Wu. 

“Disruptions could have a negative impact on people's political participation—they could lower voter turnout,” Wu said.

The risk is probably even greater for people of colour and women if they see and hear protesters spewing vitriol. 

“It could create an unequal impact in terms of interruptions,” Wu said. 

According to Wu, people of colour are already less likely to vote and engage in politics, so if they feel as though campaign events are compromising their safety even further, it could pose yet another barrier to meaningful political participation for them.

During election season, political rallies are important because they mobilize political support for candidates. In other words, they increase political participation for people on the right and the left, Wu said, adding that now, protests could hamper Liberal efforts to engage with their supporters.  

Advertisement

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also tweeted in response to Liberal rally disruptions.

“Everyone deserves to be safe on the campaign trail. I am very sorry to hear this happened tonight to Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal team and I hope that everyone is OK,” Singh said. 

Trudeau called a snap election earlier this month in a move that dismayed many Canadians who view it as an unnecessary power grab; the 49-year-old has led a minority government since the 2019 election and was looking to secure a majority after leading the country through the pandemic. But Conservatives are now gaining ground amid Liberal backlash, with the latest polls showing O’Toole and Trudeau neck-and-neck, with O’Toole eking out a small lead in support. 

Canadians head to the polls on Sept. 20. 

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.