Cover Story

My Week at Sea with Canada's Alt-Right

An undercover leftie cruises the Caribbean with Ezra Levant and his army of Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists, and Islamophobes

On a Sunday morning in late November 2016, just more than twelve dozen travellers converged on Fort Lauderdale from all corners of Canada—and one end of the political spectrum. Some were successful business owners. Others were farmers, truck drivers, radiologists, computer programmers, accountants, engineers, and retirees. At least two, improbably, were public servants: she a hospital clerk, he a mechanic who services municipal vehicles in Grande Prairie, Alberta. What united them was their devotion to Canada’s most infamous right-wing media outlet: the Rebel, brainchild of notorious provocateur and self-anointed “Rebel Commander” Ezra Levant. These were his most devoted acolytes, his army, his Rebels.

Over the next seven days, my wife and I would sail the Caribbean on Holland America’s MS Nieuw Amsterdam, where I’d embed among Levant’s admirers as they toasted the success of Donald Trump and complained about “smirking liberals” like, well, me. The Rebel name tags, with their bright-red lanyards, made it easy for us to spot one another among the 2,000 other passengers. Not that we lacked for company: our itinerary included dinners, cocktail mixers, and meetings in one of the ship’s conference rooms, where the Commander held court.

Though now well into his forties, Levant has retained the manic energy that fuelled his long career in conservative circles, from early days as a political stunt co-ordinator for Preston Manning’s Reform Party, on through his media career as the publisher of Western Standard magazine (now defunct) and a TV host at Sun News (also now defunct). Though Levant was once associated with mainstream publications such as the National Post, his most recent incarnation as Rebel entrepreneur suggests he is done with all that. Typical fare at therebel.media includes climate change pseudoscience, attacks on feminism, staged antics aimed at embarrassing community activists, and, of course, fear-mongering about Muslim refugees. After the January 29 shooting at a Quebec City mosque, for example, the Rebel purchased the domain quebecterror.com, which it has used to advance conspiracy theories that a Muslim committed the attack.

Levant describes himself as an “activist journalist” and makes no claim to objectivity. In some of his on-air segments at Sun, he seemed positively unhinged—as in a 2012 rant in which he called the Roma people “a culture synonymous with swindlers,” before going on to say, “Gypsies are not a race. They’re a shiftless group of hobos. They rob people blind. Their chief economy is theft and begging.” (He later apologized.) Defending Levant against a libel suit, his own legal team called him an “outspoken provocateur and troublemaker.”

Levant’s many bizarre statements and radical postures may suggest he is a fringe figure in Canada’s marketplace of ideas. Yet he has an almost supernatural ability to bounce back from controversy in surprising ways. It was Levant who popularized the concept of “ethical oil” with his 2011 book of the same name, which won the National Business Book Award. When he faces attack, Levant tends to hit back ruthlessly against what he calls “the liberal media elite.” A Rebel article about this publication, for instance, was titled “‘Animal porn’ magazine The Walrus is a multi-million dollar tax-exempt CHARITY run by Trudeau’s ghostwriter.” (Full disclosure: that same animal-porn enthusiast, Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay, also collaborated with Levant on his 2009 book, Shakedown.)

With its angry, anti-liberal, race-obsessed, occasionally apocalyptic tone, the Rebel resembles Breitbart, the conservative American website once run by Stephen Bannon, who is now Donald Trump’s chief strategist (a typical headline: “Idaho Dems Exec Director: DNC Should Train People ‘How to Shut Their Mouths If They’re White’”). That’s no coincidence: Levant said during the cruise that Breitbart was a major inspiration for the Rebel. Which is exactly why I spent a week of my life rubbing elbows with Levant’s most dedicated followers. Bannon’s acolytes, too, once were mocked and ridiculed as marginal loons—until they got their man into the White House. Could Levant manage the same trick here in Canada?

On the MS Nieuw Amsterdam, Levant was clearly the main attraction for Rebel cruisers. But he also brought along a corps of co-stars: conservative pundits and activists (“celebrities,” as Levant described them in the promotional material) who’d be conducting panel discussions during the course of the week on topics such as “US Election Results” (the cruise took place about two weeks after Trump’s election victory), “Political Correctness and Censorship,” “Islam and the West,” and “Is Socialism Back? Trudeau, Sanders, and Millennials.”

Four of these guests were young women: fellow Rebel personality Faith Goldy (who spearheaded Rebel coverage of the Quebec City mosque shooting); Breitbart reporter Adelle Nazarian; Toronto Sun columnist Candice Malcolm; and Paige MacPherson, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Joining them were two older pundits: right-wing historian Daniel Pipes and women’s rights activist Raheel Raza. (The lineup also originally included Milo Yiannopoulos—formerly a notorious Breitbart firebrand who was banned from Twitter after being accused of encouraging the vicious trolling of African-American comedian Leslie Jones. Veteran Edmonton Sun columnist Lorne Gunter was his last-minute replacement.)

My first look at the whole group came during our day-one cocktail mixer in the Crow’s Nest, a swanky bar with a view of the open ocean. The Rebels were mostly white; the average age seemed slightly over fifty. But I spotted a number of younger couples, a few young men who’d come alone, and one precocious boy of about ten, who, over the course of the week, enthused about the Rebel’s stars the way other kids do about professional athletes.

Levant gave a “short” welcome speech. I would soon learn that a short Ezra Levant speech is like a short Rip Van Winkle nap. During the panel discussions, his promise to take “just ten seconds” would draw increasingly louder laughter. As he would do throughout the week, Levant showed himself to be a clever, charismatic master of ceremonies. This was not his first such cruise: he’d organized them before for both Sun News and Western Standard. The man was very much in his element—socially, at least; his several references to feeling “wobbly” suggested that previous cruises had not fortified his sea legs.

The Rebel is a Toronto-based site, and Levant himself typically focuses on Canadian politics. But much of the content on the Rebel is presented in a way that appeals to right-wing culture warriors across the English-speaking world: through montages of lurid stories such as “Pakistani Migrant Won’t Be Deported after Biting German Woman While Raping Her in Attempt to Infect Her with STD” and “Daily Top Five for the Counter-Jihad: See Who Chanted ‘Allah hu Akbar’ at Women’s March.” Aside from a man who had come all the way from Denmark, however, the Rebels I met were Canadian; Ontario and Alberta provided especially large contingents.

I spoke with a man who works with the homeless, a woman who answers phones for an airline, another woman who works at a war museum, and a self-made high-school dropout who established a profitable oil-machinery business and is no stranger to fancy cruise ships (many of us, by contrast, were novice cruisers—one soft-spoken gentleman told me, “I’m not used to having dinner on so many plates”).

In their spare time, some of these Rebels toil as volunteer activists, helming conservative citizens’ groups, blogging, getting into online fights. (“I love it when they block me,” one woman said with relish.) Everyone seemed thrilled to be among “likeminded people”—a phrase I heard at least a half dozen times. Some seemed serene, polite, and reticent. Others required little prompting to air their views, and did so at regular intervals, great length, and considerable volume. One pair of travelling companions embodied both extremes: a gruff, tousle-haired Saskatchewan farmer approaching retirement age, prone to animated monologues, and his much younger nephew, a sweet and courteous computer programmer from Edmonton.

As for me, I was just trying to fit in and obey the rules of ethical journalism—which included respecting the privacy of workaday Rebels who did not know that I would be writing this article. Except in the case of the panellists (who air their views publicly in a professional capacity), names have been changed and identifying information has been kept vague. Direct quotes are based on my notes and memory and may vary slightly from what was said. I didn’t buy anyone drinks or lure anyone into saying anything outrageous. I was interested in understanding what Rebels think, and why they think it, not turning them into objects of ridicule.

So I would pose, but I would not lie. I would tell only the truth—just not necessarily the whole truth. For example, when a Rebel pointed out that my day job—I edit books—places me in a largely left-wing milieu, I conceded that, yes, it does. But as a freelancer, I added, I have the pleasure of working from home. I didn’t clarify that this pleasure derives from avoiding a commute, not avoiding liberals.

At dinner on my first night at sea, I sat across from a middle-aged Torontonian with a thick shock of greying hair. “I’ve spent twenty years fighting [Muslim incursion],” he told me. His other causes include challenging the idea of climate change (which many Rebels regard as a hoax designed to sabotage the industrialized West) and resisting Justin Trudeau’s left-of-centre agenda.

As waiters discreetly set plates in front of us, Larry (as I will call him) pressed on tirelessly, hitting me with a succession of well-rehearsed arguments and numbers. He often stabbed his finger toward me for emphasis or, in a more imploring gesture, held out his hand, palm up, fingers slightly curled as if to hold a water balloon.

Larry told us about a recent solo street protest that had earned him a photo in a Toronto newspaper. That publicity was a triumph, he declared—but it came at a cost: “I’d used a sick day to be there, and now my picture’s in the paper. Busted!” He was a solo renegade, fighting the good and often lonely fight. So it pleased him to no end that Levant—a “genius,” in Larry’s estimation—was on his side.

Also at the table was a young lawyer, a brash and opinionated Canadian now living in the United States. He was euphoric about Trump’s victory, as well as the “liberal meltdown” that went with it. But his new home came with frustrations, too. He told us that the process to become an American citizen had cost him tens of thousands of dollars; meanwhile, “illegals are apparently welcome to waltz across the border.” He also complained that Florida, where he lives, has overly restrictive gun laws.

As dessert was served, the conversation zigzagged from one topic to another: liberal villainy, voter fraud (perpetrated by Democrats, of course), the supposed benefits of pumping Earth’s atmosphere full of carbon. All the while, Larry bemoaned the hostile reaction his opinions encountered among members of the press, politicians, and acquaintances. To indicate how burdened their brains must be with the contradictions of liberal ideology, Larry repeatedly mimed his own head exploding.

My own politics lean left of centre, though not so dogmatically as to prompt cranial explosions. My friends and acquaintances tend to be lefties, too, but even the most conservative of them were united in horror, or at least severe alarm, at Trump’s election. Yet here among the Rebels, Hillary-hatred was the norm: many Rebels turned most gleeful when dwelling on the humiliation that Trump’s victory had caused her. As a middle-aged woman on the cruise put it to me, she was just happy “that bitch didn’t win.”

Trump’s victory was the focus of the first panel discussion, which took place at ten the next morning. As we waited for tardy panellists (we’d crossed the border between time zones overnight, so many passengers were confused about the time), Levant entertained the crowd with something of a stand-up routine. His material was hokey, but the jokes landed. Not for the last time, he spun self-deprecating material from the fact that the ship had a gym—the joke being that you wouldn’t likely find him in it. “I’m into fitness,” he explained. “I’m into fittin’ this pizza in my mouth!”

I’d later learn that this particular pun is a well-worn standby at the Rebel offices. One staffer told me, “I’ll be happy if I never hear the fitness joke again.” This was not said unkindly—Ezra’s employees seem to endure the painful jokes as one might tolerate the wisecracks of an uncool dad. Some of his staff have been with Levant since his days at Sun News, and they appear to be loyal and happy in their work.

The panel itself involved much badmouthing of the “Clinton mafia.” But when Daniel Pipes mentioned the obvious (to me) point that a Trump presidency could threaten global security, it did not play well in the room. This was no place to speculate on the negatives of the incoming president. Not once throughout the entire week did I hear any serious discussion of whether Trump might have sexually assaulted women (though I did hear plenty of tales of sexual assaults carried out by Muslims). Free speech has always been one of Levant’s signature issues, but I never heard any reference to Trump’s threats to sue media outlets for reporting on his scandals.

A short while later, we docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I spotted one Rebel couple touring the nearly 500-year-old cathedral and another strolling hand in hand along the ancient walls that encircle Old San. A third couple opted for a tour of the rum factory. I heard no Trump triumphalism there. In the GOP primaries, Puerto Ricans had voted overwhelmingly for Florida senator Marco Rubio. In the presidential election, they had no vote, because Puerto Rico isn’t a state. Upon learning that my wife and I are from Toronto, a San Juan cab driver had two reactions. The first: “Very cold.” The second: “I hear many people move to Canada.” Then, in case we hadn’t understood why: “Because Trump.”

A day in port on a Caribbean island offers your typical cruise passenger a welcome opportunity to stretch their legs, buy souvenirs, and sample local culture. But many from our group stayed close to port, opting for Starbucks Wi-Fi over exploration farther afield. When they weren’t catching up on the latest right-wing fare from Facebook and Breitbart, they were bonding over their shared politics. On a private beach at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas—the epitome of serene tropical beauty as depicted in tourism brochures—Larry stood on the boardwalk, fully dressed in street clothes, talking at a fellow Rebel.

An illustration by Barry Blitt of notorious provocateur and self-anointed “Rebel Commander” Ezra Levant

For all their railing against “political correctness,” Rebels can be quite fussy about the language used to describe their own kind. A common complaint is that liberals are too eager to smear them with such labels as “racist,” “transphobic,” and “Islamophobic.” As Levant argued in one of his email blast-outs to cruise participants, “they keep inventing new insults for people they don’t like.”

A particularly loathed term is “climate-change denier,” which Rebels resent on two grounds. First, as Lorne Gunter explained during one of the panel sessions, “denier” implies that the idea of a manmade warming of earth must be taken as the baseline of truth, and second, it echoes the loathsome concept of Holocaust denial. Rebels generally prefer the term “climate-change skeptic.” One diehard Rebel, a forty-nine-year-old web developer from Ottawa, talked about this subject—indeed, all political subjects—with an air of disbelief, his eyes distant and pained, as if he simply could not grasp how the world could be so stupid as to be taken in by a corrupt scientific community. At a dinner, he reminded the table of Obama’s 2015 claim that climate change is the greatest threat facing the world. More than once during the week, this particular claim would be held up for ridicule. For this Rebel, however, the problem was not just Obama’s belief in climate change; it was his misidentification of what exactly is our greatest threat. Almost as an aside, as something so obvious that it hardly bore mentioning, the Ottawan clarified that “the biggest threat is Islamic immigration to the West.” This, more than any other issue, fuels the phobic outlook of your typical Rebel.

“I first became aware of [the global implications of] Islam in the nineties,” Larry told me. A decade before 9/11 and a year or two before the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, Larry was already concerned by the implications of Ontario’s Arbitration Act, which, before being struck down in 2006, could have allowed certain forms of disputes to be resolved by religious officials, whose judgments would be enforceable by provincial courts. Following the September 11 attacks, Larry’s fears went mainstream, as many Westerners became consumed with the fear that ordinary Muslims, not just Islamist terrorists, were scheming to impose sharia on the whole of Western civilization.

Because this fear is so central to the Rebel worldview, the Friday morning panel discussion on “Islam in the West” was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the Rebel Cruise. Outside, it was a grey, rainy day, with strong winds and three-metre-high waves. Perfect weather for an apocalyptic discussion.

At the front table were Levant, Raheel Raza, Faith Goldy (a Catholic), and Adelle Nazarian (an American-Iranian Jew). Chairing the panel was Pipes, the Harvard-educated historian, whose air of maturity distinguished him from the other pundits on the cruise. While many self-proclaimed Islamic experts who appear at “alt-right” events are autodidacts who know little of actual Islamic history, Pipes can read Arabic, and was well known as a prominent (if hawkish) expert on the Middle East well before 9/11.

He’s also highly controversial—his campus speaking engagements reliably spark protests and charges of Islamophobia. In the Rebel context, however, he was the voice of reason and tolerance. Throughout the morning, the tall, bearded sixty-seven-year-old abstained from the heated rhetoric of the more youthful panellists. This did not sit well with the crowd. You don’t go on the Rebel Cruise to have your beliefs dampened; you go to have them stoked.

As for Raza, she identifies as Muslim, but also advocates for feminism and other liberal ideas that are taboo in much of the Muslim world. At dinner, Larry and a fellow diner had asserted that Raza was “not really a Muslim”; Larry told me that he planned to confront her about this during Friday’s Q&A and warned that he might “get a little rude.”

In his opening statements, Pipes said that while Islam remains a robust faith, Islamism (which is to say, Islamic militancy) is actually on the decline, that terrorism has peaked, and that many ordinary Muslims have become disgusted with the random violence committed in the name of their religion. He also noted that Islam has made significant contributions to our own Western culture. Other panellists disagreed—respectfully—that Islamism is waning. During the Q&A, the disagreement became more heated.

A rugged, shorn-headed, fiftyish truck driver from southern Ontario (we’ll call him Rob) stood up and loudly opined that Islam had been “rotten” since its inception fourteen centuries ago, and called the prophet Muhammad “a drug-addicted rapist.” Pipes, in his role as panel chairman, repeatedly leaned into the mic to ask, “What’s your question?” Finally, one emerged: “How can you say Islam has anything to offer the West?”

Pipes began by saying that Islam “has triumphs and failures in its history . . .”

This provoked an interruption from Rob: “Name one triumph.”

Pipes tried to resume but was again interrupted, and he became visibly frustrated. Finally, he declared that he would not delay the proceedings by providing such basic information (even many laypeople know that the Muslim world has been responsible for numerous innovations in science and that many classics from ancient Greece survive only because Muslim scholars preserved them during the Dark Ages; even a few Rebels I met alluded to this fact). “I’m a medieval scholar,” Pipes told Rob. “I can go toe to toe with you on this.”

The Q&A moved on, and Rob was left visibly unsatisfied. (Later, Rob would tell me, he cornered Pipes at breakfast and tried to press the issue, but Pipes did not want to engage—“He turtled on me.” Late on Saturday night, at the end of the cruise, my wife and I ran into Rob’s plus one in a corridor. Possibly joking, she told us that Rob had retired early, exhausted after “chasing Daniel Pipes up and down the ship.”)

As the session headed into its final quarter hour, Larry kept half rising from his chair, holding his hand aloft. I started to suspect he was being deliberately ignored by the Rebel staffer carrying a microphone from questioner to questioner. When Pipes announced that there was time for only one or two more questions, Larry became even more agitated, bouncing up and down in place. Still the mic was denied him. Finally, as people were getting up to leave (even Rebels grow weary of discussing the perils of Islam, apparently), he gave up on the mic altogether and blurted out that he had a question.

“If it’s quick,” said Pipes.

“It won’t be quick,” was the answer.

Pipes shook his head, a rising burble of small talk drowned out Larry, and that was that—he had lost the chance to out Raza as a fake Muslim.

It was only later that day, during a completely different session, that Larry finally had his moment and asked the speakers to assess the (absent) woman’s devotion to her professed religion. It was Levant who responded this time. To his credit, he refused to answer on Raza’s behalf: “Who am I to tell her she’s not a Muslim?”

How does an ordinary Canadian become a Rebel? During my week at sea, I began to classify Rebels according to the issues that made them angriest—the ones that had originally brought them into Levant’s orbit. Fear of Islam and a distrust of mainstream climate-change science were the most prevalent. Rebels might start out as temperate conservatives, centrists, or even leftists (Faith Goldy said that her conservatism had emerged from the ashes of a youthful hard-left zeal). But at some point, a gateway issue draws them in.

Maybe a sudden spike in a tax bill is what enrages them, or they lose their job. It could be a workplace incident in which they’re accused of exhibiting some stigmatized trait—racism, sexism, transphobia—that they don’t believe they possess. Or, watching the news, they are overcome by the horror of an ISIS terrorist attack.

Finding scant support for his views in the mainstream media, the nascent Rebel turns to Google, where his search for truth might lead to one of the many clickbait videos posted on Levant’s web site. (The Rebel has racked up more than six million YouTube views per month since its launch in early 2015. No one writes a headline like Levant.) Driven by a convert’s zeal, the newly minted Rebel becomes not only a steady consumer of Rebel content but also a publisher—spamming his friends with the stuff on Twitter and Facebook.

One Rebel I met, a middle-aged oil-patch worker from northern Alberta, described his daily media consumption as follows: First he goes to Breitbart for news, then the Rebel for “analysis,” then his local Sun newspaper “for entertainment.” Time permitting, he’ll move on to the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star or the CBC—but only if he isn’t already “angry enough.” (That last bit was said partly in jest, but the rest was in earnest.) I met members of two families for whom Rebel consumption is a daily bonding ritual: One retired couple keeps the laptop open on the breakfast table every morning, with Rebel videos turned up loud. One mother watches Rebel videos every night with her teenaged daughters.

The site generally does not publish “fake news” or such nonsense as 9/11 Trutherism. Almost everything you see on the Rebel contains at least some germ of truth; even videos with outrageous titles such as “Liberals are ISIS” present their arguments by extrapolating from actual news. But I did meet Rebels so alienated from liberal Canadian society that they had apparently descended into full-blown conspiracism. One of these was the Albertan hospital clerk—a middle-aged woman with a grim demeanour. Referring to the fire that ravaged Fort McMurray last May, she said, “A spark at one end of the city, and a spark at the other end, at the same time? Pretty big coincidence . . . That doesn’t sound like a wildfire to me. But they say it’s a wildfire, and that’s what they keep repeating.”

She didn’t provide a source for her suspicions, but I would later learn that social- media rumours and fabricated news reports had suggested that ISIS or eco-activists—or even Premier Rachel Notley, a consistent target of Rebel media attacks—had started the fire. (One article was doctored to look like a screen grab from a CBC page. The counterfeiting was so shoddy that the name of the alleged reporter had been misspelled.)

How much are these Rebels going to influence the course of Canadian politics in the Trump era? Until recently, one might have said: not at all. But the sheer speed of the Rebel’s expansion—Levant now has almost thirty staffers under him, as many as a small newspaper, and a massive donor list—suggests there is a market for his message. Not for nothing are so-called populists such as Kellie Leitch appearing at Rebel-organized rallies. At the grassroots level, Levant’s army of Twitter followers can make life difficult for anyone who angers them. Even politicians who despise Levant have good reason not to cross him.

Over time, Levant’s professional life has become a tangle of online feuds, burned bridges, and lawsuits. It’s understandable that targets of his vitriol treat him with contempt. But in the Rebel context, in the company of his faithful followers (and having no reason to suspect that I was not one of them), Levant was pleasant company. He furrowed his brow and spoke hesitantly when putting forward an idea he wasn’t yet sure about, or when sharing a provocative idea he’d chanced on in his reading. He admitted when he was delving into an area he hadn’t studied. He showed a sensitive side. Telling the story behind a folk song about popular resistance to communism in Warsaw, he became a bit misty-eyed. Perhaps it’s all an act. If so, it’s a convincing one.

There is much debate in media circles about whether Levant is a true believer in his cause—or simply an ideological huckster punching a meal ticket. I came away convinced that he’s genuine. I think he believes he’s doing the right thing. Even when his approach is brutally insensitive or worse, I think he feels justified by the supposed righteousness of his cause.

Panellist Lorne Gunter mentioned a witticism widely attributed to Robert Frost: “A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” We all had a good laugh at this. But I was probably the only one in the room laughing with self-recognition. Whatever else may be said of them, Rebels have the courage of their convictions. Like Trump’s core followers, they think they know just what’s gone wrong with the world — and who’s responsible. It must be comforting to live with this kind of moral certainty, even if it finds outward expression in anger and agitation.

On Saturday night, at the final cocktail mixer, I was approached by the Rebel’s cameraman, who was circulating among the guests and recording spontaneous recaps of our week at sea.

For a week, I’d been posing as a Rebel without telling a single lie. Now, with the lens staring me down and another Rebel looking on, I felt it would draw unwanted attention if I did not have anything to say. So I spoke.

Here is what I remember saying: “This is the Rebel Cruise, a cruise unlike any other.” I looked to the side as if to locate Ezra Levant in the room. “Ezra is doing stuff in Canada no one does.” What else could I say? Just one more sentence and I could wrap this up. I hesitated.

I thought of long dinners during which I’d been regaled with relentless waves of commentary while I held my tongue and listened. I recalled one Rebel, a young man in a “Make America Great Again” cap, positing that Canada lags behind the US politically by a decade, that our own Trump moment is just around the corner. I thought of the serene Bahamian beach, of Larry railing at whoever would listen.

The camera was still rolling. Something had to be said. I took a breath and spoke: “It was a hell of a time.”

Finally, in a way, I was telling the whole truth.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue under the headline “Conservatives in Cruisewear.”

Peter Norman is the author of a novel, Emberton, and three poetry collections.

Barry Blitt has illustrated more than seventy covers for The New Yorker over the past two decades.