Blain McElrea is an auto-glass repairman in Elliot Lake, Ontario. In the mid-1990s, he discovered that the corporate auto-body companies out-competing his small chain of shops were cutting corners on a windshield adhesive that was crucial for safety. He became an industry whistleblower. Ever since, he has believed in the power of the well-informed little guy to overcome injustice.
Years later, he put that belief to work in his moderation of QAnon Canada, a Facebook group named for the fevered conspiracy theory now disrupting politics and families around the world. Gripped by QAnon’s vision of a secret battle being waged against pedophiles and Satan worshippers, the group’s membership, according to McElrea, has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, growing from 400 members to over 4,000—and still representing only a fraction of QAnon’s Canadian followers. I asked McElrea who the members of his group are. He was warm and effusive about the online connections through which he’s found a kind of frontier family. He couldn’t be positive of members’ citizenships, but he described Canadians from all walks of life who were, like him, “suspicious of the narrative.”
What narrative? The World Economic Forum, McElrea claimed, is selling its COVID-19 plan as a ruse for instituting globalized rule. For McElrea, such a plan mimics the qualities of the virus itself—it can be anywhere, it wants to be everywhere, and it is designed to proliferate and control as many carriers as possible without them knowing. Talking with McElrea, it was clear that QAnon supporters like him view themselves as the real epidemiologists—not of the virus, which they minimize, but of a pandemic of political corruption that only intuition and spiritual renewal can cure.
When Justin Trudeau closed the physical border with the US, on March 21, to help control the spread of COVID-19, it did nothing to stop the newest American export from travelling northward. QAnon surged into the country with the rise of data usage among the anxious housebound. According to the movement’s lore, Q is an intelligence insider working as a White House mole on behalf of Donald Trump in his crusade against the Democrat “deep state” and, by extension, against a global cabal that keeps itself young and powerful by gorging on the blood of abused children. Some speculate that Q is the online avatar of either Jim Watkins, an American pig farmer and porn purveyor living in the Philippines, or someone Watkins knows or works with. Whoever Q is, the figure rallies supporters, dubbed “Anons,” in a digital war with the unenlightened, promising that, with enough social media engagement, the cursed truth of the world will be forced into the daylight. What follows this “Great Awakening,” as they call it, is unclear. But, since none of Q’s prophecies—that photos of Barack Obama in tribal attire holding an AK-47 would be released, say, or that Hillary Clinton was on the cusp of being arrested—have come true, the concern is that Q’s warriors, driven mad by expectation and cognitive dissonance, will force the issue.
McElrea doesn’t dwell on QAnon’s gruesome stock-in-trade tales of demonic worship. He describes his passion as “an information project” that builds bridges between truth seekers. His big-tent vision of QAnon’s meaning prompted him to start subgroups for religious devotees, New Agers, and UFO-believers. When asked about QAnon’s far-right, racist, and antisemitic themes—the movement’s premise of an all-powerful cabal is part of a long-standing slander against Jewish people—McElrea presented himself as a peacemaker. “I might have been a prude or a goody two-shoes when I was growing up, so I know what bad behaviour is and what unseemly behaviour is,” he said. “Basically, all of the bad things that the New York Times says about us—I am making sure that I’m not plugging into any one of those negative labels that they’re talking about.”
It’s unclear just how QAnon will adapt as it spreads. In the US, the movement is increasingly violent and has been denounced by the FBI and Congress. During election week last month, both PBS and NPR reported that two men were arrested outside of a ballot-counting centre in Philadelphia. QAnon decals were allegedly plastered on their firearm-packed Hummer. One of the men was a member of the Virginia Armed Patriots militia.
But, in Canada, the infiltration is quieter, subtler. It has become a visible, nationalized thread—mostly online but increasingly in the streets—quilting together a motley alliance of yoga moms, Yellow Vesters, anti-vaxers, pedophilia obsessives, and white nationalists. For psychologists and cult researchers, the focus is on the slow burn: How much damage can Canadian QAnon, untethered from American politics, bring?
Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate and Concordia University scholar of technology and extremist groups, is one of a handful of academics who track QAnon. He estimates that, at their height this summer, Canadian QAnon Facebook groups boasted more than 100,000 members. He also pointed out that Quebec had become a vector for QAnon content to find its way to Europe and even to French-speaking communities in North Africa and the Caribbean. “Q-tuber” Alexis Cossette-Trudel, whose channel Radio-Québec (emphasis on the Q) had 120,000 followers, was recently banned by YouTube for spreading COVID-19 disinformation.
Regardless of where they are, just how committed any given QAnon member is to their beliefs is hard to measure. “Like any extremist movement,” Argentino wrote to me, “most of it is ‘online bolstering.’” But he also explained that QAnon “has found a strong capacity to mobilize people offline, which is a concern.” Phil Gurski, a retired Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analyst who now runs his own risk-consulting company, urged moderation with regard to threat assessment. “They might have 100,000 guys online,” he said, referring to Canadian QAnons, “but 99,999 of them are gonna be useless wankers.”
All it takes to inflict harm, however, is one motivated wanker. Several American QAnons have already been charged with real-world acts of mischief or violence. The incidents appear to have begun in 2018, starting with an Arizona man who, according to the Arizona Daily Star, sabotaged water barrels left out for migrants because he believed they were connected to a global pedophile ring. Next, a Nevada man blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam in an armoured truck packed with ammunition, demanding that law enforcement release a secret government report sought by QAnon followers. In 2019, a Staten Island man allegedly murdered a mob boss, claiming Q had told him to. He was declared mentally unfit for trial. In May of that year, the FBI released a statement on the rise of conspiracy-driven domestic extremism. The report called QAnon out by name.
QAnon’s 2020 rap sheet tragically reflects the movement’s obsession with and impact on children. A Colorado woman, active on QAnon forums, awaits trial, accused of plotting with fellow Anons to kidnap her son from foster care. Other kidnapping cases, according to the Daily Beast, involve QAnon-influenced mothers egged on by bogus QAnon lawyers to violate custody orders and “rescue” their children from globalist exes or Child Protective Services, who have allegedly abducted said children for sex-crime networks.
So far, Canada has seen only one possibly QAnon-related attack. On the morning of July 2, military reservist Corey Hurren, heavily armed, allegedly drove his pickup truck from Bowsman, Manitoba, to Ottawa—more than 2,600 kilometres—to ram through the gates of Rideau Hall. A half-hour beforehand, he’d posted Q-related content to the Instagram account belonging to his meat business. But, in an explanatory letter obtained by police, Hurren reportedly focused on his financial woes during the pandemic, his grievances against the government, and his concerns about gun rights. He’s being held without bail and is expected to be tried on twenty-two charges, including uttering threats against the prime minister.
In an email statement, CSIS spokesperson John Townsend wrote that the intelligence service could not comment directly on the Hurren case but is “aware of how conspiracy theories have the potential to inspire individuals to take violent extremist actions.” Barbara Perry, who directs Ontario Tech University’s Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism, expressed doubt that CSIS would spotlight QAnon. “The far right has certainly not been very high on their priority list,” Perry told me by phone from Oshawa. By email, Caroline Duval, a corporal with the RCMP, also declined to comment on the Hurren case, as it is “before the courts.” She wrote that the Mounties are aware of QAnon but restrict their investigations to criminal acts.
The CSIS reticence to investigate QAnon may increase the feeling among some social justice activists that they’re on their own. I spoke by Zoom with CJ and Mama K (they use code names to protect their safety), who organized an antiracist event in Red Deer, Alberta, that was mobbed and ultimately stopped by a mask-free gang that included Wexit co-founder Pat King, Yellow Vest supporters, and according to Mama K, anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin.
In the lead-up to the September 20 event, Mama K said, she had noticed far-right extremists speaking violently on social media, and some posts carried QAnon themes. “They say our security is full of pedophiles,” said Mama K, referring to members of Black and Indigenous Alliance who try to physically secure safe space at their events. At the event, one attendee saw an extremist carrying Q-related paraphernalia. Another QAnon sympathizer had plastered their own van with photo decals of abused toddlers, captioned: “Our government is trafficking children.” No arrests were made during the melee, but after investigating, the RCMP laid assault charges against two individuals, one of which involves assault with a weapon.
“It’s something extra,” said Mama K when I asked whether the presence of QAnon has increased the danger of their work. “We used to be able to know who was going to racially attack us.” Now, QAnon seems to have given additional permission for latent bigotry to rise to the surface. “It’s the people in the grocery store. It’s the normal people. You can’t walk down the street anymore.”
On October 2, the US House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution condemning QAnon. Seventeen Republicans and one independent voted against it. But, in Canada, no parliamentary motion against QAnon seems to be in the offing. In June 2019, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier tweeted a video by a Canadian QAnon celebrity called Amazing Polly. It was a one-off. By email, a spokesperson clarified that “Mr. Bernier does not follow the QAnon movement and never referred to it anywhere.” In August, Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay retweeted an antisemitic post about the purported closeness of Chrystia Freeland and George Soros, a favourite QAnon target. Facing swift backlash, Findlay deleted the tweet and posted an apology within hours. And, in October, Daryl Cooper, the Saskatchewan Party candidate for Saskatoon Eastview, was busted by reporters for posting a QAnon-related suggestion that COVID-19 may come from the sun, then “liking” two pieces of QAnon content. It took just hours for him to step down from the party. He issued a statement the next day denying involvement with QAnon.
In January, Wexit co-founder and ex–RCMP officer Peter Downing made his pro-secession group, Alberta Fights Back, famous in the province with a series of billboards that applied the Trumpian “lock her up” rally rhetoric to Trudeau, ostensibly for various crimes including tax theft and economic sabotage. One billboard accused Trudeau of “normalizing pedophilia.” By phone from Alberta, Downing said that this claim stemmed from the similarity between the triangle logo from a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation report and a symbol identified by the FBI in 2007 as code used in online sex trafficking.
I asked Downing how he felt about the billboard campaign now. “It was great,” he said. “All sorts of left wingers in Alberta said that they were going to move, and all sorts of conservative people in the rest of Canada said they would move to Alberta. This one girl said that it made her want to throw up. Another said this made her want to ugly cry. And I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.”
I asked if the pedophilia reference aligned him with QAnon. “Well, we’re going to see what happens with Hillary Clinton’s emails,” Downing said. QAnons have perennially echoed Trump’s empty speculations on the crimes Clinton’s emails will disclose. In the lead-up to election day, the frenzy shifted to the child pornography allegedly tucked away in a busted laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Now, many are still pinning their hopes on Trump revealing the truth about a CIA-developed supercomputer suspected of illegally flipping Trump votes to Biden. The entire movement turns on secrets hidden in hard drives, algorithms, and hearts.
While Canadian politicians have mostly stayed quiet on QAnon, the country’s social media influencers have played an outsize role in its international spread. Amazing Polly, who ran her YouTube channel out of Ontario before it was banned by the platform in a QAnon purge on October 15, described the province’s public health measures against COVID-19 to her 377,000 subscribers as “torture.” She was also the instigator of the runaway Wayfair conspiracy in June, in which the home-goods retailer was accused of trafficking children in expensive cabinets—because, it was claimed, the cabinets were named after children.
By August, the Wayfair rumours had rolled seamlessly into the #savethechildren movement, eventually sparking rallies in US cities. That movement is now widely understood as a front for QAnon recruitment that paradoxically disrupts the work of legitimate antitrafficking organizations. Century-old US nonprofit Save the Children had to issue a statement distancing itself from the QAnon group that had hijacked its name.
For about a month, Vancouver-based self-help author Danielle LaPorte—featured on Oprah’s SuperSoulTV—drew her 249,000 Instagram followers right to the edge of the QAnon cliff via the #savethechildren theme. In one selfie sermon, she called child trafficking a “pandemic” that’s “not being talked about enough” and suggested that ending it was a matter of spiritual warfare. (The post is no longer visible on her profile.) In another video, she complained that the term “conspiracy theory” is used to smear whistleblowers with unpopular points of view. On the subject of QAnon, she hedged. “I got no patience for that association,” she said, “although there might be some truth in things.” By email, LaPorte declined to be interviewed but did point out that the charitable arm of her organization was supporting Ally Global, a real-world antitrafficking nonprofit in Vancouver.
On a smaller but more diffuse scale, yoga and wellness influencers with house-league followings have also drifted into the QAnon universe, possibly because they found that, as soon as they began to post QAnon materials, their engagement rates climbed. Montreal is a minor hotspot, with several of my colleagues reporting a rash of QAnon-related support for antimask rallies. One neo-Tantric sexual healing teacher posted that the public health guidelines are intended to obscure the pandemic of pedophilia. Commenters in the thread boosted Wayfair and other conspiracy theories. In the Maritimes, one yoga teacher interrupted her Instagram feed to post a four-minute lecture to her more than 1,400 followers about a coming mass spiritual awakening—after COVID-19 is revealed as a distraction—and how the satanic cabal is about to be overcome by Trump, who belongs to the “team of light.”
On the Prairies, at least two popular yoga instructors in Saskatoon have posted overt QAnon content. One declined an interview, explaining that he didn’t think I was coming from “a heart centred space” and that I was “condemning people for speaking up.” The other is the organizer of a major yoga festival in Saskatchewan. In July, they directed their more than 1,200 followers to watch Out of Shadows, a popular QAnon recruiting video made by a former Hollywood stuntman reported to have found QAnon while recovering from a career-ending injury. They didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Canada is not new to aiding and abetting moral panic. The modern-day spectre of globally networked satanic ritual abuse, after all, arose almost whole-cloth from a single book published in 1980. Michelle Remembers was based on psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder’s recordings from his therapy sessions with a patient who recounted tales of the lurid abuse she suffered as part of a satanic cult when growing up in 1950s Victoria. The book sparked the Satanic Panic—the belief that hidden among us were hundreds of Satanists abusing and murdering children. In Martensville, Saskatchewan, nine people were charged for being members of a nonexistent satanic pedophile ring. One man was eventually convicted of sex-related charges, but no evidence ever turned up to verify the core rumours of the panic. The harrowing court cases took over a decade to resolve and left the community and many of its families in tatters. The conspiracy theory ravaged North America and the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s and arguably laid the predigital groundwork for QAnon.
In a way, that Satanic Panic is back, strained through the dregs of the dark web. The security and extremism analysts I spoke to agreed that, at this point, QAnon in Canada is disorganized, but that it may bolster existing extremist groups—as in the Red Deer incident—and could inspire lone-wolf attacks. In the absence of political traction, and if the Trumpian core of its mythos burns up with the president’s fortunes, some Canadian QAnons will pivot and adapt.
A few days after Facebook’s sitewide QAnon purge in October, I phoned Blain McElrea to check in, wondering what it felt like to have an entire network of relations deleted overnight. “We knew this was coming,” he said, “and so what we’ve done is we learned from our mistakes. How participating under QAnon, but not having anybody setting rules and organizing it, was used to our disadvantage.” McElrea denounced the violent rhetoric that got the groups banned and affirmed that his group was a peaceful “idea project.” They would be using a new name, he said, implying that QAnon could more appropriately be called Quantum. “It’s just a matter of getting the band back together.”
If McElrea does make a comeback, he may find himself playing alongside other groups that avoid explicit reference to QAnon but that have simmered in the same pandemic pressure cooker, borrowing many of its flavours. The Line Canada is a broad-based antilockdown coalition with a messy agenda but a tidy logo: a Zen-brushed O with a red slash through it. Tilt it just a few degrees and you see a bleeding Q. (George Roche, The Line’s executive director, would not comment on whether the organization is affiliated with QAnon.)
In a Zoom interview, co-founder Lamont Daigle told me that the O stands for oppression. “The red is to signify blood,” he said. “It’s the Braveheart mentality. It’s the hero’s journey. It’s: What brought you here? Are you fed up? Every segment of society has failed us because of this new world agenda, quite frankly. There’s no other way to look at it.” Daigle was evangelical and polite. He called me “brother,” and I felt that, in some way, he meant it.
When we spoke, Daigle had organized almost thirty weeks of protest events in as many as ten cities, including Toronto. The Line Canada also has branches in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Edmonton. By email, Daigle wrote that the events average between 1,500 and 2,000 attendees and that he’s expecting numbers to grow. (Another spokesperson suggested the number averages between 4,000 and 4,500.) There are no plans to stop. The Line Canada also coordinates with the anti-vax group Vaxxed Canada and an antilockdown group called Hugs Over Masks. Daigle’s most visible event to date was a Toronto march that occurred on October 17. CTV News reported more than 1,000 in attendance; the right-wing broadside Post Millennial counted 4,000.
The Line’s events are typically packed with speeches and rock songs with gospel fervour. On October 17, the mostly white but generationally diverse march added music thumping from pickup trucks. From the makeshift stage, raw-food celebrity David Avocado Wolfe shouted out his disbelief in germ theory and his desire that Bill Gates be “captured alive” to stand trial for crimes against humanity. (In Calgary earlier this year, Wolfe posted a video speech in which he poured brimstone down on satanic pedophiles and asserted that Trump was the only answer.) Trump flags flew from the windows of pickup trucks crawling up Yonge Street. The fleur-de-lys flew alongside the Métis flag. Members of Aylmer’s Church of God were also marching, surrounded by a smattering of QAnon supporters declaring, “Where we go one, we go all”—one of the movement’s rallying cries (usually shortened to WWG1WGA). One man carried a sign saying “Q sent me.”
On November 3, Daigle posted a video to his personal Facebook page expressing his hope that his American friends would rise to the occasion of defeating the New World Order. He tagged the post with #WWG1WGA. Later that month, news footage revealed members of The Line waving their zero-slash flags in the parking lot of Adamson Barbecue, in Toronto, which had opened for mask-free indoor dining in defiance of public health measures.
QAnon may feel like an alternate reality, but it belongs very much to our world. “We are at the stage where we have citizens and people who are completely distressed,” said clinical psychologist and violence researcher Ghayda Hassan from her office at the Université du Québec à Montréal. People who, she continued, “are rendered vulnerable by a globalized economic system that is producing more and more injustices, who feel that institutions and governments are violating their basic rights, but who cannot self-organize into a smart, structured line of thought.” Hassan argued that this kind of feeling of injustice is expressing itself “in nihilistic and anarchistic ways: ‘Let’s destroy these organizations; let’s destroy governments.’”
One positive way forward, Hassan suggested, is for public responses to stop demonizing QAnon supporters, as this can play into their self-isolating narratives. Adherents should be taken at their word, she said, as people who yearn to connect the dots toward justice. “So how do we help people connect the dots in a way that’s not destructive, eventually to themselves in society?” she asked, adding that governments should recognize that COVID-19 crisis measures really can create the perception of a repressive, black-box government. “We have to answer to those people’s emotions and frustrations,” she said, “and not just give them orders on what they should and shouldn’t do, which will increase the perception that the government is like an elite doing whatever they want.”
Hassan isn’t alone in highlighting the fears that drive modern-day conspiracists. CBC Radio journalist Lisa Bryn Rundle spent over eight months researching Uncover: Satanic Panic, a richly layered 2020 podcast on the satanic-pedophile frenzy that overtook Martensville. I asked her what she’d learned and what people—journalists especially—should be aware of. “These things thrive in the gaps,” she said, “in terms of how well we’re doing as a society. I would keep that in mind and come with empathy and an interest in understanding, because I think that’s the only way that we can move past it.” She added: “I feel like, very often, the pain is real, even if the facts are not.”