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Alberta’s paranoid outlook

COVID-19Canadian Politics

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney addresses a crowd of supporters. Photo courtesy the United Conservative Party.

A few dozen people are gathered in the North Plaza overlooking the grounds of the Alberta legislature in Edmonton. The crowd all seem to know each other, warmly greeting the few stragglers still showing up with hugs and high fives. It’s sunny yet cold, but not cold enough to warrant covering your face, and my cloth mask stands out among the conspicuously unmasked throng.

It’s an eclectic group: anti-vaxxers, natural health moms watching their kids tumble over each other in the snowbanks, irate YouTubers, a new-ager with a third eye tattooed on his brow, Christian nationalists and self-described patriots. They chat excitedly among themselves, picket signs leaning over their shoulders. ‘Protect Freedom,’ ‘Rights are Essential,’ ‘No Masks for Kids,’ some of them read. Others are filled with text and bar graphs too small to make out, proof the creators have ‘done their research.’ They’re here for what has become a weekly rally in Edmonton, and they are waiting for this Saturday’s line-up to speak about Charter rights and freedoms, and to yell about Dr. Deena Hinshaw—Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer—stealing Christmas.

This is the point within the Albertan body politic where acceptable political discourse and overt conspiracy theory separate.

The province has a consistently higher tolerance for the paranoid style of politics. Some are more or less harmless—45 percent believe in UFOs, about a third that Princess Diana was assassinated—and others, like the quarter of the population that believes climate change is a hoax, have dangerous implications. The last example is the easiest to make sense of, as the number of Albertans who trust the consensus of climate scientists is below the national average. Once you’ve set aside science, it’s a short step to conspiratorial thinking to fill in the gaps and connect the dots.

“It’s just another flu, really,” says Steven, a protester in his early 20s. “It’s blown out of proportion. It’s causing people to lose their jobs.”

This viewpoint could easily have come from any number of Alberta MPs, some of whom continue to express doubt about the severity of the health risks posed by COVID-19.

“The lockdown is causing more harm than good,” Steven continues. The best course of action, he feels, is for restrictions to be lifted, businesses opened, and for everything to just go back to normal.

Statements like these have been called dangerous and misleading, or described as misinformation when voiced by elected officials, but have so far lacked the unreasoned leap that constitutes a conspiracy.

“The number of suicides is quadruple the number of people that have died from COVID,” Steven tells me.

Helga, who has been nodding along in agreement with Steven, says she had a friend who committed suicide, and his cause of death was recorded as COVID-19.

“No! It was suicide,” she insists, emphatically shaking her head. “It’s such a lie, everything. You can believe what you want.”

Steven and Helga’s assertions are just one variation of a popular COVID conspiracy that the actual number of dead is negligible, and that statistics are grossly inflated by recategorizing deaths unrelated to the virus. To what end? According to conspiracists, this is deliberately designed to mislead the public, make them docile, and usher in a communist, socialist or fascist takeover (depending on who you ask), with the ultimate goal of a global slave state.

“Masks are just the beginning,” admonishes one of the presenters through a PA system. “This is the greatest fraud ever perpetrated.”

The simplest definition of a conspiracy theory is the belief that a shadowy group is secretly manipulating world events, and the problems we are experiencing as a result would disappear if they were stopped. Such beliefs have been a consistent fixture in political culture throughout history, even if the internet and social media are helping to spread conspiracy theories in record numbers.

In an article in Memory Studies, Jan-Willem von Prooijen and Karen Douglas write that the rise of conspiracy theories is linked to periods of societal crisis, defined as “rapid societal change that calls existing power structures, norms of conduct, or even the existence of specific people or groups into question.”

Conspiracy theories provide simplified versions of events with complex or unknown causes, a characteristic that makes them especially well-suited for popular uptake and transmission. They are ways of explaining the world without any need for expertise, and are thus quickly absorbed in our cultural narrative, easily passed on even to generations far removed from the period during which they initially formed—like the assassinations of Princess Diana or JFK.

A woman unfurls a Trump 2020 flag at an anti-mask rally in Edmonton. Photo by Brett McKay

It is still safe to call the anti-maskers a fringe movement. Though, according to a study by Carleton University, 29 percent of Albertans believe COVID-19 is an engineered bioweapon (the highest rate in the country). Understanding why this idea has so much purchase in western Canada could shed light on the prominence of conspiracy belief in Alberta’s political culture.

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook by Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook defines the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. They contain contradictory ideas; they’re deeply suspicious and immune to evidence; patterns are identified where none actually exist; and a hidden group behind world events is drawn out of the randomness of history. Those who have woken up to the master plan see themselves as the persecuted victims of it, and heroes in the struggle to stop it.

The authors explain that people turn to conspiracy theories to help them cope with feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. Other studies have shown fear of unemployment makes people more likely to believe, and with the protracted tumult of 2020 it’s easy to see why such ideas have seen a spike in popularity.

But what about in stable and prosperous times? What is it that makes Albertans in particular so conspiracy-inclined?

A separate and much quoted study of Lewandowsky’s found a predictor that gets to the heart of our provincial identity—free-market worldviews. People who hold strong laissez-faire attitudes are prone to dismiss evidence of problems that would require government intervention and regulation to solve, like climate change, or smoking—or as we’re seeing now, a global pandemic. The belief that the invisible hand of the market is best left unchecked, ironically, primes people to see the ‘hidden hand’ at work in world events. And the admission of one conspiracy, Ted Goertzel of Rutgers University has noted, makes us more likely to entertain others.

The individualistic, self-made, free-market mentality has been strong within Alberta’s borders almost as long as they’ve existed. To a large degree, this ideology was established by the influx of American immigrants in the province’s foundational years.

Part of this influence was simply a matter of numbers.

“There were so many of them compared to anywhere else in the country,” explains Nelson Wiseman, author and political science professor at the University of Toronto.

By 1911, Americans accounted for nearly one quarter of the province’s population, causing one MP to remark it “might be regarded as a typical American state.” With them came the ideals of a liberal society, diverse religious traditions, and even the image of the cowboy, which was formed in the American west and quickly became a part of Alberta’s iconography. They were largely English-speaking Anglo-Saxons and considered the preferred class of immigrant by provincial politicians.

“You had a very big concentration of Americans and they tended to settle in rural areas which were overrepresented in the legislature,” says Wiseman. “They had a disproportionate influence. Those foundations were very significant, because foundations in any society are significant. The ideas that took root in those early years became part of the ethos of Alberta.”

The impact of geography and immigration on regional politics was clear in the difference between Alberta and neighbouring Saskatchewan—where British socialists had a greater impact—in the first half of the 20th century.

“You had Social Credit and the CCF right next to each other. One was socialist and one was free enterprise. One was as anti-communist as you could be, and the other was identified with communist elements.”

Though, Wiseman adds, this didn’t mean the CCF (the precursor to the NDP) actually considered itself a communist party.

Along with an aversion to collectivism, part of the legacy of this American influence is a stronger identification with, and interest in, political models south of the border.

Back at the rally, a woman walks to the top of Prospect Point—a high point on the legislature grounds—and unfurls a Trump 2020 flag to a smattering of hoots and raised fists. Someone in the crowd laments forgetting to bring his Trump Halloween mask. The outgoing US president has been a frequent topic of conversation at the rally. It’s just after the election and people in the crowd are discussing the alleged voter fraud and wondering aloud how long it will take for the public to see the truth—Trump won.

The US president has enjoyed disproportionate popularity in Alberta, with a third of the province saying they would vote for him. This level of support for US conservatives isn’t uncommon. The first speech George W. Bush gave to an international audience after leaving office was in Calgary for a reason, but Trump has become a unique icon on the right and a hero in COVID conspiracy lore.

This summer, a billboard picturing Donald Trump and the question “Should Alberta join the USA?” went up in Edmonton. It was paid for by Wexit co-founder Peter Downing. Photo by Denis Bolotsky.

During his tenure, the bleed of American politics into our own was pronounced, and at times bizarre. At an anti-carbon tax rally at the legislature in 2016, a 1,000-person crowd chanted “lock her up” about Rachel Notley, the same chorus that targeted Hillary Clinton and filled stadiums all along Trump’s campaign trail. This summer a billboard featuring Trump’s profile and the question “Should Alberta join the USA?” went up in Edmonton, paid for by Wexit co-founder Peter Downing.

Coronavirus conspiracy theorists see Trump as one of the few politicians willing to stand up to the hoax, or alternatively, that the pandemic was orchestrated by the deep state to interfere with his re-election.

The ‘deep state’ narrative—an unelected cadre orchestrating world events from behind the scenes, for their profit and at the expense of the American people—has been a part of his campaign from its earliest stages. It’s an idea that re-emerged into the mainstream alongside his presidency. And it’s one that’s had undue influence in Albertan political thought for nearly a century.

When the Social Credit Party came to power in a landslide victory in 1935, it did so as champion of individualism and free enterprise. And at the core of the party philosophy lay a deeply anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Behind the hardships facing Albertans, the economic downturn and lack of political influence, behind the great depression, the World Wars, the Russian Revolution and socialism itself was a secret cabal of Jewish elites who controlled the global financial system.

In 1943, L.D. Lang, technical advisor to the Alberta Social Credit Board, described the conspiracy as “a highly centralized private monopoly concentrated in the hands of a small group of men who constitute a super-government that can override all politically elected governments.”

Cover of The Social Crediter, April 24, 1948.

The Canadian Social Crediter, the official party organ, provided readers with the results of their inquiry into the international finance conspiracy: “Let us look at the names of the key personalities in the Great Conspiracy against humanity… They are almost exclusively Jews racially, with one or two exceptions.”

The conspiracy found fertile ground in depression ravaged Alberta. In the deprivation and uncertainty, people were in need of an explanation for the conditions they endured, and the international financier was a convenient scapegoat. University of Calgary professor Howard Palmer estimated that during that period, the Jewish community in Alberta accounted for less than one half of one percent of the population. Their absence in the province made them an ideal faceless enemy for politicians and laypeople alike to project their problems onto.

Anti-Semitism appeared in Social Credit doctrine wherever the party was present, and in Alberta it took on a character unique to the time and place. In The Keegstra Affair, Allan Davies writes that for Albertans, the bankers attached to conspiracy “were largely easterners from Toronto and Montreal, and both of these cities, as everyone knew, were home to substantial Jewish immigrant communities. In this way, anti-eastern, anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish feelings were employed as a means of mutual enhancement, each enflaming the other.”

Both premiers William Aberhart and Ernest Manning made statements condemning the overt racism within the party and distancing themselves from the most vocal anti-Semitic factions, though these disavowals were made necessary because of frequent scandals caused by party members. Even then, it was only the most racist elements that were denied. For Manning, the existence of a “pagan” and “positive anti-Christian conspiracy” backing the communist-socialist-fascist-authoritarian global takeover was without question.

In one public scandal it was revealed that copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated document purporting to show insider plans for Jewish global domination, was being distributed from the office of Alberta Social Credit MP John Blackmore. Responsibility was ultimately placed on Blackmore’s secretary, but his response leaves little doubt of his own feelings towards the material.

“If you tell the truth about Jews, are you anti-Semitic?” he asked reporters. Blackmore described the materials as anti-communist, insisting that many of those involved in the communist conspiracy happened to be Jews, and this was not reason for the books themselves to be disregarded.

This is representative of a rhetorical shift that was taking place not only within the Alberta Social Credit party, but the conspiracy theory community as well. In the wake of the Second World War, anti-Semitic propaganda was subject to greater public scrutiny, and adherents aimed to reframe what is arguably the world’s oldest conspiracy theory in the language of the Cold War. Scholars have called this ‘anti-Semitism without the Jews.’ The unseemly anti-Semitic elements were excised in order to make the conspiracy theory more palatable.

In Canadian Social Crediter articles, links were drawn between shadowy bankers and the Russian Revolution, assuring readers that the revolution’s success shows “International Finance, Communism and Socialism working hand-in-hand.” Gary Allen’s 1972 None Dare Call it Conspiracy tells readers that Adam Weishaupt, mastermind of the Illuminati, provided “models for Communist methodology.” Jim Marrs’ Rule by Secrecy, Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, and David Icke’s The Biggest Secret–cornerstone texts in the conspiracy canon—all include similarly revised accounts of history.

In what Michael Barkun calls “bridging mechanisms”, conspiracy theories are attached to real world organizations to make them appear plausible, and to provide a definite group to point your finger at. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations took the place of former enemy states at the centre of the web of conspiracy.

In a 2002 letter of Canadian Alliance members, Stephen Harper warned that the Kyoto protocols were a “socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.” Harper articulated a dominant theme in conspiracy subcultures—and mainstream conservatism—with no shortage of senators, congresspersons, members of parliament, and presidents keeping up with the Alex Joneses in claiming that climate change is being used as cover for a host of nefarious schemes. With it came an obstinate distrust of the science behind climate change, and of science itself.

Around the same time Harper was writing his letter, fellow Canadian Alliance member Jason Kenney was regaling an audience at a homeschool conference with stories of how he’d been awakened to anti-family initiatives with an “international, worldwide dimension, that’s very much rooted in the agenda of the United Nations.” Involving the Rockefellers, Planned Parenthood, the Ford Foundation, and international governments, it was almost too kooky to accept, he admitted, but he had seen it with his own eyes.

Kenney has flirted with conspiracy theory throughout his career, at one time trying to link multiculturalism with the Frankfurt school of Marxists—which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “a conspiracy theory with an anti-Semitic twist”—and always keeping a vigilant watch for outsiders meddling with Alberta’s oil.

Jason Kenney speaks with a student at the University of Alberta. Photo by Richard Bagan/The Gateway.

During a Facebook Live event in the first week of December, Jason Kenney responded to a question about “The Great Reset.” It is no conspiracy theory, he informed viewers, but a set of policy proposals by influential leaders—a “grab bag of left-wing ideas for less freedom and more government”—to exploit the pandemic and push “failed socialist policy ideas” on those who have been hardest hit.

The Great Reset is real. It is a World Economic Forum initiative launched at the 2020 Davos summit, and the title of the book by WEF founder Klaus Schwab mentioned by Kenney. It is also the latest real-world group on which conspiracists have hung a century’s worth of imaginative anxieties: powerful elites, 5G, one-world government, socialism, mandatory vaccines, microchips. Kenney’s characterizations barely scratch the surface, nor do they do much to discourage what’s festering underneath.

At the rally in Edmonton, a de facto MC led the crowd in a chant—“No New Normal! No New Normal! No New Normal!”—with his megaphone in between speakers. The afternoon began with “O Canada” and calls to defend our freedoms, meandered through constitutional rights and the alleged harms of wearing masks, and finished on advice to not watch mainstream media and avoid New World Order narratives.

When the crowd left to march through downtown, I went in the opposite direction to catch the train home. Above 109 Street an electric traffic sign flashed: COVID-19 STAY SAFE. WEAR A MASK. NO LARGE GATHERINGS. A beacon of reason at the end of a long afternoon.

With hundreds dead, ICUs full, and the province planning to erect field hospitals to cope with record numbers of cases, it’s safe to say that the emphasis on individual responsibility and putting the economy first hasn’t worked. The worst of the pandemic will likely be seen in the weeks to come, and the jagged upward spikes on the weekly infection reports foreshadow how we’ll handle future disasters.

Our cultural narratives provide us with ways of explaining world events. This doesn’t mean these explanations are true, nor does it make the actions they inspire effective. Alberta was born in rapid societal change, its population growing a staggering 413 percent in its first decade. For reasons of geography, economy, and chance, the province’s history has been defined by booms that draw people in and crashes that can foster paranoid worldviews. Conspiracy theories evolve along with and as part of political culture, perhaps even faster when the culture itself refuses to.

On the other side of COVID is the ecological emergency and an unprecedented need for systemic change. Now is a good time to evaluate how well the mix of free market fundamentalism and conspiracy theory in our cultural inheritance will serve us in the years ahead.

One belief system that invents enemies (Easterners! Globalists! Foreign funded activists!) while real threats go unaddressed. The other valourizes government inaction in the face of crisis.

Brett McKay is a writer and journalist based in Edmonton, AB. You can contact him here.

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