How Three Big Conspiracy Theories Took Root in Canada

Fringe beliefs are fringe until they’re not. Their mainstreaming has historically been aided by prominent thinkers

An illustration of an eye, surrounded by yellow swirls and lines, against a red backdrop

We are living in uncertain, anxious times, which have made the explanatory and comforting dynamics of conspiratorial thinking all the more appealing. Conspiratorial thinking is often viewed as deeply irrational, but the desire for what it can provide—the illusion of stability and clarity—is reasonable and relatable. In recent years, ideas once considered beyond the pale have made inroads into legitimate institutions and among Canadians. We’ve seen credentialled medical professionals play footsie with anti-vaccine activists wielding sciencey vocabularies, accomplished lawyers push dubious and convenient interpretations of the law, elected officials entertain baseless claims about governmental conspiracy, Convoyites swear themselves in as so-called peace officers with imagined arresting powers, and livestreamers LARP as tenacious, evidence-based journalists. The phenomenon has crept into nearly all walks of Canadian life, leaving many wondering how we can possibly recover from this situation.

It’s commonly assumed that education inoculates against conspiratorial thinking. However, schooling is not a foolproof safeguard against paranoid thinking. Despite Canada having one of the world’s most highly educated populations, a poll released in December 2023 by Leger found that 79 percent of Canadians believe at least one conspiracy theory, including hallucinations about Princess Diana being assassinated and global cabals of elites secretly pulling the strings. However, the conspiratorial thinking running rampant is neither new nor an imported phenomenon. Forms of fringe thought that are increasingly relevant today, including pseudo constitutionalism, conspiratorial anti-communism, and New World Order conspiracism, have historically appeared in Canada, including among the well connected and highly educated.

Conspiratorial thinking can act like quicksand. Even the most seemingly benign conspiratorial belief can suck the believer deeper into morass and closer to hateful, sometimes nakedly fascist, figures. The roots of conspiracism run deep in Canada, and the trajectories of several intellectuals and pseudo intellectuals show how easily these ideas can be harnessed by fringe political movements and have pulled the educated, respectable, and influential into alliances with noxious elements of Canadian politics.

The convoy protests and blockades of 2022 presented Canadians with a carnivalesque road show of grievances and symbols. One individual rolled up at an Alberta protest in a white pickup truck festooned with bizarre claims like “CANADA DOES NOT HAVE A CONSTITUTION” and references to pseudo constitutionalist Russell Rogers Smith’s work. Smith was a Saskatchewan-born engineer who gained political influence built around his erroneous belief that the 1931 Statute of Westminster had nullified Confederation’s distribution of powers with the provinces, a belief bolstered by his inability to find an original copy of the British North America Act in what was then called the Public Archives of Canada. There is nothing in Canadian constitutional law suggesting that Confederation is invalid, but the self-styled legal expert believed that he had found the hook from which a vast network of fraud and chicanery hung—and proof that Canadian laws were non-binding.

Smith achieved influence via the social credit movement in the 1930s, through which he legitimized his unorthodox ideas with elected officials. Smith gained access to Alberta premier William Aberhart, and in 1937, he published Alberta Has the Sovereign Right to Issue and Use Its Own Credit in support of Aberhart’s controversial prosperity certificate program intended to encourage spending during the Great Depression, which introduced certificates that expired after two years. He found a long-time disciple in member of Parliament Walter F. Kuhl, whom he provided with private tutelage for about fourteen years. Kuhl would then regularly (and unsuccessfully) try to convince his fellow parliamentarians that their country was indeed a sham, through speeches and pamphlets like Canada: A Country without a Constitution. Kuhl went on to become an adviser for Western Canada Federation founder Elmer Knutson, and in 1980, he told a high school audience that then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was engaged in a plot to build “a world government that will take away the sovereignty of all countries.”

Constitutional law is an arcane, complicated field that can easily be misused to dress up and promote shoddy ideas. Smith’s pseudo constitutionalism found an audience in the context of the Great Depression, when disillusionment with the status quo was high. Arguments about the illegitimacy of existing authority told a distrustful and desperate population what they wanted to hear: that they had much-desired economic power in a profoundly destabilized time. As a result, Smith’s hare-brained interpretations were legitimized by powerful institutions and have been kept alive in conspiratorial milieus.

Smith and Kuhl’s work was carried on in the postwar era by an array of overlapping fringe communities. The Canadian fascist Ron Gostick reprinted their pamphlets in the ’90s, while “detaxers” have used them to argue that they didn’t have to pay taxes. In 1998, Smith’s ideas returned to Parliament when, during a Standing Committee on Finance meeting, a misguided individual claimed that Canadian banks were illegitimate, before being cut off by exasperated MPs. The idea that Canada has no right to pass laws was decisively dismantled in Butterfield v. LeBlanc (2007), but it lives on. Today, digital versions of Smith’s and Kuhl’s writings can be found around the web, including on the sites of several pseudo-constitutional movements that legal expert Donald Netolitzky has termed the “New Constitutionalists,” who also happen to be engaged with anti-vaccination activism.

Social networks can be a powerful force in normalizing fringe beliefs. Although a conspiracy theorist may be concerned with only one specific issue, their entry into conspiratorial milieus primes them for further radicalization.

Watson Kirkconnell was an intellectual heavyweight in twentieth-century Canada, being a celebrated and award-winning literary academic, an officer of the Order of Canada, and a recipient of a dozen honorary degrees and described as one of the fathers of Canadian multiculturalism. Kirkconnell was also a rabid anti-communist conspiracy theorist who saw red machinations in every shadow and a eugenicist preoccupied with ideas of racial purity from an early age. In the 1920s, he proposed banning interracial marriage, prohibiting so-called non-white immigration, creating unemployed labour camps, and sterilizing the “unfit.” Although Kirkconnell eventually turned away from these extremes, he soon set his sights on communism, which seemed to become an all-consuming obsession. From 1939 onward, he feverishly worked to warn the Canadian public of the danger he perceived, through public lectures, radio addresses, and pamphlets, while embracing increasingly fringe theories.

In 1959, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was considering fluoridating their water supply, at a time when Kirkconnell was president of Acadia University. Kirkconnell responded with a letter to a local newspaper claiming that fluoride causes brain damage, making individuals susceptible to communist domination. The national press picked up the story and emphasized the seedy network of disinformation and paranoia that Kirkconnell’s anti-fluoride ideas emerged from. Popular historian Pierre Berton wrote in the Toronto Star that the theory was “balderdash,” pointing out that Kirkconnell was tied to the “militantly Christian and militantly nationalist” Freedom Foundation of Canada, which distributed Gostick’s small hate-rag The Canadian Intelligence Service. Another organization Gostick associated with, the National Federation of Christian Laymen, distributed the infamous antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

An important dynamic of people falling into a conspiratorial milieu is how such theories can help rationalize difficulties an individual may be experiencing by flattening complexity and providing answers that soothe and distract from uncomfortable realities. Rather than accepting that negative circumstances were often the result of individual choices in the face of a global pandemic, anti-vaccine conspiracists evoke global-domination conspiracies about the World Economic Forum to explain away a complicated situation and ameliorate responsibility for personal circumstances.

A notable proponent of New World Order conspiracies was also a pioneer in Celtic studies in Canada: Robert O’Driscoll, a distinguished academic whose credentials were eagerly exploited by evangelizing antisemites and neo-Nazis. The Newfoundland-born academic’s works, such as The Celtic Consciousness and studies on William Butler Yeats, helped establish his reputation as an influential scholar, and his work was regularly covered by national publications like the Globe and Mail through the 1970s. He was integral to establishing and running the Celtic studies program at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College—a platform he used to organize conferences that attracted famous academics like Marshall McLuhan.

O’Driscoll’s understanding of the global conspiracy was complex and involved wild claims about the usual suspects: Jews and Masons and Catholics, all of whom were allegedly conspiring to shape a global government. He saw the tentacles of conspiracy on campus, thinking that the accusations of antisemitism he was facing were somehow also part of the same plot that he believed was inducing the chemistry department to bioengineer an HIV-like supervirus.

His foray into this realm brought him into close contact with infamous fascists. In 1993, he published The New World Order in North America: Mechanism in Place for a Police State by a Secret North American Military Counter Intelligence Team, that he co-edited with J. J. Willis (allegedly the pen name of the infamous Canadian white supremacist John Ross Taylor). He also published The New World Order and the Throne of the Antichrist that year, finishing his trilogy the following year with New World Order: Corruption in Canada, each of which republished the work of notorious antisemites (including quoting approvingly from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and, yet again, Gostick’s writings). He also appeared on the Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel’s broadcast Voice of Freedom, where he delved into theories about the Antichrist, Masonic rituals, and the alleged bloodline of Christ traced in the infamous pseudo-historical text (and key source for The Da Vinci Code) The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

For most of his career, O’Driscoll was trending upward, enjoying a respected and comfortable position at the top of a field he helped shape. His descent into conspiracism occurred during a stretch of erratic personal behaviour and professional decline. In 1986, he lost his post with the Celtic studies program after alienating university officials, a punishment later reduced to a suspension. Around the same time, police removed O’Driscoll from the St. Michael’s theatre after he disrupted a play, and around 1990, he was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for eighteen days after assaulting a university maintenance worker. University president George Connell tried to suspend O’Driscoll indefinitely after the assault but backed off after faculty, students, and hospital psychiatrists said he was fit to continue teaching. The next year, O’Driscoll made school newspaper headlines when he suggested that some members of the university chemistry department were war criminals involved in a plot to get him fired for good.

Education and conspiratorial thinking have an ambivalent relationship, and O’Driscoll’s accomplishments did not inoculate him from conspiratorial thinking. If anything, they equipped him with the tools he needed to rationalize beliefs to himself while making him a prime target for extremists. In an obituary for Books in Canada, a long-time friend wrote that O’Driscoll “got sick; he thought himself surrounded by enemies.” Visions of powerful conspiracies perhaps helped O’Driscoll explain his decline to himself and ultimately pushed him into the arms of extremists, who were more than happy to associate and legitimize themselves with an accomplished professor from a prestigious university. Although conspiratorial thinking thrives off the taboo-driven lure of forbidden ideas, stigmatized knowledge, and heterodox thought, its proponents also yearn for mainstream and institutional acceptance. This is why Holocaust deniers often try and challenge legitimate academics to debates—or, as in O’Driscoll’s case, hijack his academic reputation, all while condemning the academy as hopelessly biased and played upon by a conspiracy involving NATO and a group of powerful families that he believed controlled Canadian society.

Fringe beliefs often overlap with or exist adjacently to one another due to their stigmatized nature, and belief in one conspiracy tends to beget belief in others. Despite having different backgrounds, Smith, Kirkconnell, and O’Driscoll ultimately occupied similar waters: Smith was a social creditor, which was tied to the Freedom Foundation that Kirkconnell associated with, while Kuhl espoused the One World Government ideas that could be found within Kirkconnell’s anti-communist circles and that O’Driscoll dove head first into.

Fringe beliefs are fringe until they’re not, and the mainstreaming process can be aided by academics and other prominent thinkers. Education is an important tool in building up bulwarks against conspiratorial thinking, but it’s not a silver bullet. Conspiracism masquerading as legitimate thought is influencing educated, powerful Canadians.

To address this problem, we need to highlight the toxic historical roots of many of these ideas while asking hard questions about what needs conspiracy theories may be fulfilling for the individual—as well as how conspiratorial thinking is often an irrational response to rational problems. We cannot begin to address our problems with conspiratorial thinking without paying attention to that dynamic.

Correction, May 22, 2024: An earlier version of this article stated that, in the 1930s, Russell Rogers Smith was unable to find an original copy of the British North America Act in what was then called the National Archives of Canada. In fact, it was called the Public Archives of Canada at the time. The Walrus regrets the error.

Daniel R. Meister
Daniel R. Meister is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New Brunswick. He is the author of The Racial Mosaic: A Pre-History of Canadian Multiculturalism.
Daniel Panneton
Daniel Panneton is a writer and researcher based in Toronto.