A previous version of this story included a quote about Ezra Levant that was not intended for publication but was published due to an editing error. VICE Canada sincerely regrets the mistake.
This story has been updated to include Joe Oliver's Jewish identity and to further clarify the story is speaking about the roots of the "foreign funded" criticism, not necessarily the speakers' intent.
Seven years ago, as the Harper Conservatives were settling into their first and only majority government, then-Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver published an explosive open letter accusing “environmental and other radical groups” of trying to block resource projects.
“It’s financed, without exaggeration, by billionaire socialists from the United States—people like George Soros,” Oliver, who is Jewish, told CBC’s The National on January 9, 2012, the same day the now-infamous letter was published. In response, Open Society Foundation—founded by Soros—told the Vancouver Observer that it wasn’t funding any pipeline opposition in Canada.
The Soros dog-whistle didn’t seem to mean much at the time. After all, it was well before the Hungarian-American billionaire’s name became a widely popular proxy for far-right fear-mongering about “globalism” and “paid protesters,” and a pipe bomb was sent to his house by a Floridian Trump obsessive who shared memes describing Soros as a “Judeo-plutocratic Bolshevik Zionist world conspirator.”
But it’s no coincidence that the government’s promotion of the “foreign funded radicals” trope, which had first started in the pages of the Calgary Herald’s a few years earlier, began with name-dropping Soros—who had been the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories since the late 2000s courtesy of right-wing commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.
That’s because the entire subtext of the “foreign funding” campaign—even if not the speaker's intention—tapped into centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes that imply shadowy Jewish financiers scheming behind the scenes. The power and effectiveness of “foreign funded radicals” doesn’t come from presenting a coherent logical argument—the thesis falls apart if you think about it for more than a few seconds—but by appealing to long-standing anti-Jewish narratives that have found a home in Alberta politics for many decades.
“The idea that Jews are setting about intentionally to stoke social unrest goes back pretty far,” said Talia Lavin, extremism researcher at Media Matters for America, in an interview with VICE Canada. “It serves a dual purpose: to imply that social protest is inherently illegitimate because other motives than sincere ideological rooting, that there’s this financial motive, and it also serves to explain social problems as simply the crafty machinations of Jews working towards their own racial ends.”
Let’s be very clear. We are not saying proponents of the “foreign funded radicals” trope—including Andrew Scheer, Jason Kenney, former BC justice minister Suzanne Anton, “Fair Questions” founder Vivian Krause and former Dragon’s Den star W. Brett Wilson (who has repeatedly called for such “traitors” to be literally hanged)—are anti-Semitic.
Their targeting of donations made to environmental organizations like West Coast Environmental Law and the Wilderness Committee by US foundations such as Tides and the Rockefeller Foundation have nothing visibly to do with prejudice against Jewish people. Likewise, criticism of non-Jewish celebrities such as James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio and Neil Young for alleged interference in Alberta’s business seem far removed from “globalist” conspiracy theories.
But it’s all anchored in a very long tradition of anti-Semitic scaremongering about “inherently illegitimate, inorganic, unnatural and a result of nefarious, devious plotting by the Jews,” Lavin said. This traces back to Henry Ford-era propaganda about the Rothschilds and jazz music, and includes white supremacist allegations that the NAACP and leftist student movements were being funded by Jewish subversives.
It’s usually not as explicit in the case of Canada, but it’s coming from the same point of origin.
“I’m not trying to suggest that Jason Kenney is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite,” emphasized Kate Jacobson, host of leftist podcast Alberta Advantage, in an interview with VICE Canada. “I just think the regurgitation of these narratives is really popular with their base because it’s a way of giving voice to a real anger and type of populist discontent, but it really relies on these tropes—and inflames them.
“It’s basically a way of looking at the rapid development of industrial capitalism, and how it’s a very intangible and powerful and international phenomenon, and then personifying and identifying it as ‘the Jew,’” she added. “These things are really, very dangerous.”
Logically, the underlying argument of “foreign funded radicals” doesn’t make any sense. Oilsands companies rely primarily on American capital to exist: four of the top five largest owners of Suncor, the girthiest oilsands company, are headquartered in the United States with over $6 billion in combined share value, while heavy hitter Imperial Oil is majority owned by Texas’s Exxon Mobil. Almost all oil exports from Canada end up in US refineries, which are often owned by the very same companies that extract the bitumen; if the Trans Mountain expansion gets built, it’s almost guaranteed that exports will go to California and Washington, not Asia.
Furthermore, the people and organizations slinging mud against environmental groups rarely divulge their own funding sources.
Vivian Krause, whose “research” is primarily cited in claims of “foreign funding,” hasn’t disclosed her own financing since 2011 (up until 2015, her Twitter account made critical references to Soros, but in recent years has tried to distinguish herself from such connections). Climate denying group “Friends of Science”—a frequent peddler of the “foreign funded” line—received a $175,000 donation from Talisman Energy in 2004 and listed in US coal company Peabody Energy’s 2016 bankruptcy documents as a creditor. Other astroturf groups like Oil Sands Action and Suits and Boots refuse to disclose sources of money.
Postmedia—the newspaper chain that has promoted the narrative of “foreign funding radicals” the most, including from our favourite grandpa Joe Oliver—is overwhelmingly owned by US hedge funds. Oh, and Canada just bailed out a Houston-based pipeline company formed out of the ashes of Enron to the tune of $4.5 billion (although the full cost of buying and expanding the pipeline is expected to cost somewhere between $15 billion and $20 billion).
Anna Johnston, staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law—one of the organizations frequently smeared as “foreign funded”—said in an interview with VICE Canada that it receives a “very small percentage” of funds from the US and that all strategic plans by the organization are determined prior to seeking funding.
“It’s a completely absurd tack to take,” she said. “The argument itself has no merits. The intention is purely to distract audiences from talking about the issues and attempt to totally discredit the groups that are raising valid public policy questions.”
It certainly is absurd. But it’s not accidental.
Shane Gunster, associate professor of communication at Simon Fraser University and expert in media coverage of environmental issues, said in an interview with VICE Canada that the entire premise of “foreign funded radicals” relies on a petronationalist framing of criticizing oilsands as “un-Canadian.” Anti-oilsands activism has been presented as “primarily driven by groups from the outside,” he said, creating an “inside/outside narrative” that conveniently ignores all Indigenous opposition to new projects. Supporting the oilsands is considered to be Canadian, with any criticism coming from outsiders.
“Clearly, they’re trying to make the argument this is from people whose strings are being pulled from the outside,” he said.
That’s modern anti-Semitism in a nutshell: the idea that progress is being disrupted by mysterious outside sources, personifying a critique of capitalism by assigning specific blame to Jewish people. It’s very rare to hear accusations of “foreign funding” attached to non-Jewish billionaires: the name of Bill Gates is never invoked in the same derogatory way as Soros’. While celebrities like DiCaprio and Young are frequently ridiculed for their commentary about the oilsands, there’s never any suggestion that they’re funding opposition. That’s left to the anonymous “foreign” threat, aka the Jews.
“There’s this perennial idea that Jews seek to disrupt white societies in the name of diluting white racial purity and creating chaos that they can then profit from,” Lavin said.
Jacobson said that it’s no coincidence that both Indigenous people and “foreign funded environmentalists” are talked about in the same breath, with anti-Soros rhetoric embedded in the assumption that Jews can never be citizens of Canada (or any country) because of an allegiance to some kind of “abstract international power.” Vague concern trolling about “foreign funding” inevitably end up reproducing such tropes.
“Both of those ways are saying ‘you fundamentally do not belong to the nation of Canada,’” Jacobson said. “Indigenous people: because the nation of Canada is predicated upon their destruction. And a dog-whistle for Jewish people: because Jews fundamentally, of course, can never belong to a nation.”
It’s the same reason, for instance, why Palestinian rights activist Dimitri Lascaris was recently slammed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal party leaders after tweeting that two Liberal MPs “are more devoted to apartheid Israel than to their own Prime Minister.”
The framing of the nefarious Jew loyal to outside forces is deeply embedded in the political history of Alberta. The Social Credit Party, which ruled the province from 1935 to 1971, was founded on the economic principles of C.H. Douglas, who scholar Janine Stingel described as believing in “an international, Jewish financial conspiracy controlled the world's economies and governments.” Jacobson said that anti-Semitism of the long-lasting Social Credit Party—whose second leader, Ernest Manning, was the father of Reform Party leader Preston Manning—was “completely foundational to their worldview.”
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious and highly influential anti-Semitic conspiracy text that framed Jews as “insidious trouble makers with a nefarious agenda at odds with that of the good, ‘true’ citizens of a nation,” was a key foundation for the party; an Alberta MP was busted in 1953 for distributing it out of his office at the House of Commons. And this isn’t all well in the past, either: Stockwell Day, short-lived leader of the Canadian Alliance and high-ranking Conservative MP until 2011, proudly associated with Holocaust denier Jim Keegstra after he was convicted of hate crimes in 1984.
“Obviously there are huge differences between the United Conservative Party and Social Credit,” Jacobson said. “But I very much see Jason Kenney as the heir to Social Credit’s populist tradition.”
The anti-Soros undertones weren’t a dominant theme at the time of Oliver’s open letter and interview, said Gunster of Simon Fraser University, with considerably more focus placed on globe-trotting celebrities. However, he said that he’s not that surprised by the recent turn as “it’s not that far from that to conspiracy theories about George Soros and his foundation.”
Canada’s flaccid iteration of France’s “yellow vest” movement has successfully married anti-carbon tax rhetoric with racist fear mongering about the UN migrant pact, which far-right propagandists such as The Rebel have directly linked to Soros.
Entrenched in the movement is a regurgitation of the same anti-Semitic trope: signs at rallies have included “foreign funded eco-shaming radicals not welcome” and “Justin you are un-Canadian” and “Trudeau is a traitor.” A recent rally in Lethbridge was attended by literal fascists, including a woman who famously had her kids taken away from her after she drew swastikas on their arms and another with the Nazi dog-whistle “1488” drawn on one vest. Fascist militias including Sons of Odin, and its splinter group Wolves of Odin, have helped organize protests.
Such rhetoric can have fatal implications. In early November, 11 people were killed in the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the deadliest single attack on Jewish people in US history. Perpetrator Robert Bowers was unbelievably anti-Semitic, convinced that a Jewish refugee organization was bringing the asylum seekers from Honduras to the United States.
Canada’s version is less obvious. But it’s still very present, seeming to grow by the week in the gradual lead up to the Alberta and federal elections. Any sensible inquiry into the concern trolling will fail as it’s not premised on any sort of actual logic: after all, why would an American foundation fund environmental activism as a means to inhibit Canadian economic progress while also funding environmental activism in the US, while also understanding that almost all Canadian oil is being exported to the US and primarily benefits American investors? There is no coherent explanation outside of its cleverly veiled anti-Semitic roots.
It may only get worse. Lavin of Media Matters said that the Tree of Life massacre and pipe bomb placements haven’t slowed such rhetoric of Jewish conspiring. And Canada has indeed birthed many renowned crypto-fascists—Faith Goldy, Stefan Molyneux, Lauren Southern.
“In that context, it’s not entirely surprising that the Canadian far-right would seek to adapt some of the same language of delegitimization of anti-Semitic conspiracy that’s been endemic to American discourse for over a century,” Lavin said.
What’s next will be up to us to decide. Johnston of West Coast Environmental Law said that she feels optimistic based on polling data from the last time this kind of rhetoric rose in popularity.
“Most Canadians really don’t like this US-style attack-based campaigning,” she said. “It may work for a core group of constituents, but we were never going to convince those Jason Kenney and Harper constituents of our arguments on the issues either. I don’t think we’ll pay it too much mind.”
Here’s hoping the majority of Canadians feel the same.
Follow James Wilt on Twitter.
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