Conservatives are backing away from The Rebel, after its coverage of Charlottesville, but anti-Muslim and anti-immigration protests continue to happen in Canada.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published on Monday, August 21, 2017 in The Hill Times.
OTTAWA—The northward drift of the American alt-right may have been stopped in its tracks in the aftermath of Charlottesville last week. Or it may actually be energized by the post-Charlottesville fallout.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer announced Thursday that he would no longer give interviews to self-stylized right-wing online presence, Rebel Media, after it provided positive coverage and streamed live images of neo-fascist, Nazi-chanting Virginia marchers.
In normal times, a quarter of the Conservative caucus has been interviewed by The Rebel, with a YouTube audience of 400,000. Scheer was a regular until his disavowal last week.
Rebel’s troubles began when a contributor, covering the event in Charlottesville, retweeted insinuations that the murderous white supremacist driver who is alleged to have killed one person with his car, may have been provoked because anti-racism protesters who hit the speeding vehicle before it ploughed into the crowd.
Rebel co-founder and former Sun Media journalist Brian Lilley exited the online news organization days before Scheer’s declaration, claiming the outlet suffers from a “lack of editorial and behavioural judgment that left unchecked will destroy it and those around it.”
With the departure of Lilley, and the Charlottesville fallout, Scheer had no choice but to publicly cut ties with The Rebel.
Lilley posted his leave-taking notice on Facebook, linking co-founder Ezra Levant with the alt-right movement in his comments.
“I was never enamoured by the ‘alt-right,’ never saw the appeal but I take Ezra at his word when he describes his evolution. But just as he has evolved, just as The Rebel has evolved, so have I and the uncomfortable dance that I have been doing for some time now must come to an end. … As a serious journalist with nearly 20 years’ experience at the highest levels in this country, and abroad, I cannot be a part of this.”
Lilley bluntly went much further: “I am not comfortable being associated with a group that, rightly or wrongly, is being increasingly viewed as associated with the likes of Richard Spencer. Like many of you, I had family that fought the Nazis, I never want to be in the same room as one. I am also not comfortable with the increasingly harsh tone taken on issues like immigration, or Islam. There are ways to disagree on policy without resorting to us versus them rhetoric.”
In attempting to tone down The Rebel backlash, Levant issued a statement claiming that “the alt-right is, in my mind—the mirror image of Black Lives Matter.”
His statement was eerily similar to the declaration of American President Donald Trump, who shocked the world by claiming that “very fine people” on both sides were undermined by a few bad people in both the alt-right and, in Trump’s words, the “alt-left.”
Most Tory caucus members will likely follow their leader in finally refusing to do interviews with The Rebel.
Earlier in the week, in a CBC interview, Conservative analyst Rick Anderson confirmed that 75 per cent of the caucus is already declined invitations.
But Conservative MPs who were dancing with the The Rebel, including the leader, depend on religious conservatives for their electoral base. Scheer himself courted that cohort in his successful bid to overtake libertarian Max Bernier for the Tory leadership.
Former Stephen Harper aide Hamish Marshall, who managed Scheer’s leadership campaign, served until recently as a director of Rebel News.
Scheer’s unexpected win was predicated on courting the sizeable right-wing contingent in his caucus, the group that until last week were key to Rebel messaging.
Within the Tories, a group concerned by the current right wing drift of the party has been meeting secretly to consider alternatives.
Meanwhile, emboldened racists are demonstrating across Canada too. An anti-Muslim rally in Calgary last month was to be followed by an anti-immigrant Vancouver gathering in front of city hall last Saturday.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson decried the event but said he was powerless to stop it because of laws governing free speech. Both events were organized by anti-Muslim groups seeking a return to “European-based” immigration.
The University of Toronto is attempting to halt a similar Sept. 14 rally. University officials say the event will not be allowed on campus, but organizers are still advertising it, without citing a specific location.
During his leadership, Scheer vowed to cut funding from universities that do not permit “free speech” on campus.
When mid-September rolls around, the Tory leader may have to revisit that pledge.
Unlike Donald Trump, Scheer won’t get away with playing both sides of this story.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.