This story contains strong language, and quoted threats of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Take people at their word when they mean to do you harm.
That is the message that experts in the field of extremism research want Calgarians to take to heart.
It’s with that in mind that Calgary city council voted this week to allow for elected members to expense up to $8,000 for home security systems.
Reaction on social media was swift. Many posters, echoing the debate in council that led to the 8-7 vote, questioned the need for Councillors to have security systems.
A point of contention for many on social media was the estimated $120,000 figure for the security. That’s a figure based on the assumption that each of the city’s council members would use the entire amount.
Other reactions were less about the spending. They were more about expressing desire to do councillors the very violence that prompted the reinstated security cash.
Some of these posts were made on Calgary Freedom Central’s Facebook page. It’s the same group which has organized protests at councillor and a Member of Parliament’s homes this month.
The vast majority of posts on Calgary Freedom Central’s page have called for and have amplified the need for peaceful protests and airing of grievances.
But, it also isn’t hard to find posts calling for violence against politicians and public figures.
We aren’t able to independently verify the actual users behind these accounts, but their usernames are known to LWC. We have chosen not to identify them by username.
Writing on that page, one user said “sounds like a job for a baseball bat and some bricks.” In response, another user asked if the response should be “maybe a cocktail,” to which the original poster responded “molotov [sic] or high ball,” followed by a smirking face emoji.
And in another example, in response to a post condemning Calgary Freedom Central’s protest outside of Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s home, one user said “angry torch mobs would have been more sufficent [sic]. Give it a bit.”
He followed up that post by posting a link to a CTV article about Quebec’s decision to impose financial penalties on the unvaccinated in that province, stating “this is Absolutely [sic] nuts. I hope houses start blowing up soon.”
Another user wrote “if the building the safe room is in burns to the ground its pretty useless.”
And yet another user wrote “build the g4ll0w5 [sic].”
Dr. Christine Sarteschi is an associate professor at Chatham University’s social work and criminology departments, who has extensively studied and written on sovereign citizens and extreme violence.
“So if they’re saying these things, and they’re threatening, and they have strong emotions to the point where they’re willing to get together and go to people’s houses and do what they do—that shows how strongly they feel about, and that is very concerning and I think could lead to violence,” she said.
“The fact that they’re going to people and they’re being confrontational—they have caused violence in some instances, they have lit buildings on fire.”
Down the rabbit hole
Kurt Phillips, a board member with the Canadian Anti Hate Network said that the comment sections on Calgary Freedom Central, and other similar groups around the province, have attracted people excited about making the lives of politicians difficult.
“The comment sections in these in these groups are often very excited about this. Making politicians uncomfortable, making them afraid to leave their houses, and the justification is, ‘they’ve ruined our lives, we should ruin theirs,'” he said.
He said the passing of the Calgary bylaw would be used as another rhetorical tool by these groups.
“No doubt they’re going to use this as ever more justification for doing what they’re going to be doing anyways,” Phillips said.
Phillips expressed concern that people new to the movement may not know who they are getting involved with.
“It’s attracting a large number of people, individuals, who prior to the pandemic never would have been involved in these kind of movements,” he said.
He said that people taking issue with masking requirements, vaccine passports, and who believe having to take vaccines is an infringement on their civil liberties, are being pulled into an echo chamber where the danger of the rhetoric being ramped up is real.
“One of the things that pandemic has done is that a lot of people, especially initially, had to stay at home, and they were connected to the outside world using social media, and they started falling down rabbit holes,” he said.
“So if you start reading a lot of these conspiracies on Facebook sites and, and on YouTube videos, well, the algorithms are going to continue to push those.
“It creates this kind of echo chamber where the only people who you’re talking to are people who already agree with you, and they get in your mind that ‘we’re the majority.’ If you talk to these individuals, they’re convinced—absolutely convinced– that almost every single Canadian actually believes like they do.”
Calgary is no stranger to the rising number of indecent and harassing communications sent each year that result in criminal investigations. According to Statistics Canada, 2013 saw the 20-year low of such investigations, with 112. This rose to 593 in 2020, a 430 per cent increase.
Provincially, this trend has had a smaller increase, yet the number in 2020 similarly outstripped any previous year in the past 20 years.
Calgary's corporate security team would not provide numbers of how many of these communications, or threats in general, were directed towards councillors or their staff.
Anecdotally, LiveWire Calgary has been told that these numbers have been on the rise.
"My team in my office will tell you that the the type of messages that we get on a daily basis have become increasingly more alarming, and the kind of vitriol that I heard as a councillor has ratcheted up significantly since I become mayor," the mayor told LWC in an exclusive, members-only podcast.
"People are emboldened to say things and they're emboldened to do things—I mean, I've been physically stopped on the sidewalk by people much bigger than me because they feel they can do that."
An example of this was observed by LiveWire Calgary last November during the shop local campaign launch. While in Inglewood, members of the Mayor's security team had to physically intervene on an anti-mask protester confronting the mayor.
Identifying extremists in the midst
Phillips said that the Canadian Anti Hate Network has identified the resurgence of neo-Nazis, like the Aryan Guard, involving themselves in these protests.
"They're attracting some real far right individuals," he said.
"You have the your Christian Nationalists, you have your Q-Anon and conspiracy theorists, and there's a strong sovereign citizen component to this."
During the summertime, anti-vaccine counter-protesters to the Test, Trace, Isolate protests were observed to be carrying signs that called for open confrontation with masons, Catholics, and people of the Jewish faith. All common targets for conspiracy theories, and for the latter, often the target of vile hate speech and violence.
Dr. Sarteschi said that she has seen a mixing of different belief systems.
"It's interesting that you have these people who are now they're not just one thing, they're are a number of things," she said.
"They're, they're mixing different ideologies. I see that with Ramona [Didulo] the Queen of Canada, where she is exposing Q-Anon beliefs, in addition to sovereign beliefs, and then a lot of new age type of stuff."
Didulo has frequently made references to arming the public, and has pronounced death sentences on large groups of Canadians for what she claims are "crimes against humanity."
She was allegedly taken to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, B.C. by RCMP officers for psychiatric evaluation in December 2021, after she asked her followers to "shoot to kill" health workers providing vaccines to anyone under the age of 19.
The self-proclaimed Queen of Canada has over 76,000 followers on her Telegram account.
It only takes one
Phillips made a distinction between the average online person making threats, and the kind of self-radicalized individuals willing to go through with the violence.
"A lot of the people are in line, they're blowing off steam in some ways—I don't want to minimize what they're doing, because it's still dangerous, but most of these people probably will not go out and carry out the act," he said.
"So when you see people referring to, 'we need to bring some gallows to the to the legislative building or to Parliament,' they're not going to do that."
He said that there are some who become disturbed by the rhetoric, and go through with attempts to do politicians harm. He pointed to the example of Corey Hurren, who breached the grounds of Rideau Hall while heavily armed. He was stopped by members of the RCMP.
Hurren was sentenced to six years for doing so. Hurren plead guilty to the charges brought against him. He said that he wanted to arrest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the issues of Covid-19 public health restrictions, and the banning of certain types of assault-style rifles.
"That week, there was a big rally. It was a kind of 'Trudeau was a traitor, he's somebody who we need to get rid of,'" said Phillips.
"The majority of them didn't physically act on it, but one person did."
And although rare, the murder of politicians in western nations by self-radicalized individuals has occurred.
David Amess, a United Kingdom Conservative Member of Parliment, was murdered in 2021 by a man who was alleged to have been radicalized online. That trial is set to take place in April of this year.
Also in the UK, Labour Party MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016, by a white supremacist who blamed liberals and the mainstream media for what he saw as the world's problems.
And Democratic State Senator Clementa Pinckney was murdered in 2015 during a mass shooting by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Calls for extra-judicial arrests and executions
On Calgary Freedom Central's page there have been numerous posts calling for extra-judicial arrests, and ultimately the execution of politicians and public figures.
On another post of Calgary Freedom Central's protest at Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra's home earlier this month, a user called for a "citizen arrest" of Carra. The Calgary Freedom Central group in response posted "that's where this is going."
The group has called Carra, "Calgary's most corrupted city councillor." They accuse Carra of engaging in so-called "medical apartheid," and for ordering fencing around an Inglewood parking lot that had become a site of weekly protests held by the owner of Without Papers Pizza.
A user said "the politicians need to be put behind bars and jabbed with their vaccines weekly!"
And in response to a meme image of Calgary Skyview MP George Chahal, another user wrote, "Trudeau is untouchable through the legal system system and it's going to have to be real Canadians that take legal matters into their own hands to get rid of him and his whole corrupt party and followers including the NDP, UCP, conservatives, green, and the block."[sic]
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, has also been the target of calls of extra-judicial violence.
Posts like "Military tribunals need to happen immediately for crimes against humanity," "all governments should be under arrest soon as. Treason control you name it they are guilty of all the above," "arrest them and execute them," and "please someone just arrest this evil fear mongering prue [sic] evil," were among the responses to a post about the CMOH.
In the original post that prompted those responses, Calgary Freedom Central asked "is it time for the arrests to begin yet, Alberta?"
Protests are new, paper terrorism is not
These sorts of calls for extra-judicial arrests and violence fall squarely under sovereign citizen belief systems.
One such commonly posted sovereign citizen document on both the Calgary Freedom Central page, and on extremist Telegram accounts, is the supposed verdict from the International Common Law Court of Justice that purports to allow for the arrest of politicians, and other targets of their hate.
This is justified by claiming that vaccines are being used to commit genocide. And that politicians, in league with other targets of their conspiracy theories, have assassinated people within their movement as a cover up. None of these allegations are based on real evidence, or even reality.
The document claims to allow "Sheriffs," and their "deputies" the ability to seize persons and assets. Targets of this list are such Canadians as Justin Trudeau, B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, and members of the United Church of Canada. It is written with a gibberish case docket numbers and other pseudo-legalese to make it appear as if it is a real court document.
"It has no legitimacy at all, but they believe it does," said Dr. Sarteschi.
"And so the thing that's concerning is that they feel very strongly about their belief that these vaccines are genocide, and all of the things that come along with that verdict and so forth."
She said that followers are being pushed to go perform arrests thinking they have the legal justification to do so.
"The message has been sent that there are supposed to be constables out there that are going to be arresting people according to their, quote–unquote, verdict. They're going to deputize people who are able to then go out and arrest people."
Documents like these have been used in the UK to harass hospital workers, and in one case, remove a Covid patient from hospital receiving treatment. That patient subsequently died.
And while Dr. Sarteschi says that to the average lay person, these sorts of pronouncements might seem amusing or even entertaining, there is a deadly side to them.
"I think they're dangerous to democracy," she said.
She said that groups espousing sovereign citizen beliefs, banding together, and protesting at people's houses is a new and worrisome development. Dr. Sarteschi pointed to the UK and Australia, in addition to Canada.
"I think that's new, facilitated by the pandemic," she said.
"It seems like they've become a mixture, almost of, I guess for lack of a better term, people who are against vaccines—anti-vaxxers, for short. And then some of those individuals are adopting some of the sovereign citizen rhetoric, language, and different tools that they found online, and that they believe can exempt them from having to follow the government mandates," she said.
Lack of belief in the rule of law
Ultimately, said Dr. Sarteschi, sovereign citizens do not believe in or want to follow the rule of law.
"They want to find a rationalization in some way to get out of the government mandates ... they don't want to follow these laws," she said. "So they're finding a rationale to do it, and the sovereign citizen script is just right there."
"They believe that their specific form of legalese, or set of words or sentences that are phrased in a particular way, or that are capitalized a certain way, or that are punctuated a certain way, that that allows them to skirt or get around the laws," she said.
She said that no court has ever, or would ever accept these pseudo-legal arguments. In Alberta, a 2012 ruling placed restrictions on sovereign citizens abusing the litigation process with those arguments.
"Well, how the sovereigns then still believe this when you know, there's the ideas in the world is that these don't work? I don't think they know that, or they just don't accept that," said Dr. Sarteschi.
Setting the record on the security system expense bylaw
Mayor Jyoti Gondek spoke to LiveWire Calgary last Friday. She said that she was not surprised by the reaction to the bylaw passing.
"I think what was missing for Calgarians on this one, is that in May of 2021 Council took away the ability for members of council to expense security, and I don't think Calgarians knew that," said the Mayor.
"I think Calgarians feel like 'oh my goodness, they just introduced this brand new benefit for themselves.'"
She said that the previous council was working so that all expenses for Councillors would funnel through the finance department.
"We just never got to it by the time we saw this escalation in incidents," she said.
Another misunderstanding, Mayor Gondek said, that was not helped by poor communication, was that the expense for security systems was to be entirely optional, and not expected to cost the full $8,000.
She said that threshold was identified by the city's corporate security team to ensure that Councillors could get the service level needed, not that would uniformly cost $8,000 per council member.
"But I'll tell you what I worried about: If there is a member of council who does not have the ability right now to put a system in place, and that person's home security was compromised and their family was put in a position of danger, I would feel incredibly irresponsible for not taking better care."