Arthur News School of Fish
Illustration by Cameron Noble

The Grift that Keeps on Giving

Written by
Cameron Noble
June 4, 2021
The Grift that Keeps on Giving
Illustration by Cameron Noble

Since the beginning, the anti-vaccine movement (started by disgraced former physician Andrew Wakefield and his now retracted study that falsely claimed a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism) had ulterior financial motives. In Wakefield’s case, he just so happened to patent a competing vaccine to MMR in 1997, a year before the study was published that would come to define the modern anti-vaccine movement. 

All of this is explored at length in ‘The Doctor Who Fooled the World’, by investigative reporter Brian Deer, who reveals a massive money-making scheme at the core of the anti-vaccine movement started by Wakefield, who he describes as the ‘father of the anti-vaccine movement’. 

Another figure, whom I first came to know via Quebec-based journalist and activist Nora Loreto in the aptly titled ‘The Media Has Ignored the Anti-Vax White Supremacist Roots’, published in Passage on April 7th, is Sherri Tenpenny, an anti-vaccination activist who supports the disproved Wakefield hypothesis, which of note, is scientific research that has never been attempted to be replicated since for good reason. There’s also a host of embroiled legal controversy surrounding the study and Wakefield’s ‘scientific’ methods for coming to the conclusions in the study, but I digress. 

As Loreto makes note, Tenpenny was recently the subject of an investigative piece by CBC Marketplace journalists who uncovered that more than 400 people had signed up, which at $623 per person, adds up to over $250,000. This figure excludes additional fees from a number of additional courses offered by Tenpenny, including her own brand ‘Nutritional Frontiers’, of vitamins and supplements that she posits as alternatives to vaccinations and modern medicine. 

It’s worth noting that although this article will touch on aspects of vaccine hesitancy; vaccine hesitancy in Canada as an overall phenomenon does not exist in a vacuum from the myriad of very real ways that Canada has historically and continues to carry out violence against marginalized peoples which includes in the healthcare system. However, Canadian media does a tremendous disservice by presenting the aforementioned Wakefield canon of anti-vaccination efforts in attempting to grapple with a more complex vaccine hesitancy, and for the purposes of clarification, this article does not seek to unpack the complexities of vaccine hesitancy, but to examine the Wakefield tradition as the basis from which the majority of the regional anti-lockdown activists have come to incorporate anti-vaccination rhetoric into their mandate. 

In the context of what our coverage has looked to reveal in our local anti-lockdown activism, this is a useful piece of North American grifter history to explore. Particularly useful, as vaccination numbers continue to climb across the country, the anti-lockdown activists seek to incorporate a more amorphous anti-vaccine ideology into the forefront of activism around the pandemic. 

Masks Off 

The Bernier-Hillier rally on April 24 certainly appears like the climax for the Peterborough Anti-Lockdown movement. Still, there were worthy observations that could point to a potential future for their organizing, like the group's disagreement over their position on the Peterborough Police. A visual manifestation of this split occurred when some of the protesters confronted the police officers at the demonstration after other protesters had already left Confederation Square. Later in the livestream, an even smaller group goes to confront the police station.  

Following the altercation between Hillier and the police, it would appear as though the crowd began to fizzle. During the livestream, open disagreements can be heard amongst members. One attendee shouted, ‘We need to fight fire with fire’ (at approximately 12:17) arguing with another demonstrator, while simultaneously, other demonstrators are heard imploring the smaller group of more militant demonstrators to give the police space.

Deprived of their padding from demonstrators in other regional locales, the weekly protests in Peterborough have begun to fizzle since the climax of their Bernier-Hillier event. It’s perhaps more accurate to point out that the number of core demonstrators has hardly changed, and what is happening is simply those two-dozen or so demonstrators being left to their own devices. Although they are certainly still experiencing marginal growth, Arthur has always been diligent in reporting that these weekly numbers have been continuously padded by extended invitations to anti-lockdown demonstrators in the GTA and Kingston. Several protesters at the Bernier-Hillier event brought recycled signs, some still sporting slogans relevant to their regional locales. Just two weekends ago, most of the Peterborough anti-lockdown demonstrators returned the favour by traveling to Toronto for a provincial demonstration against the lockdown measures. 

A protester with recycled signs, including one directed at Kingston's Mayor Paterson

Right Connections

However, since the release of my last article Little Barbershop of Horrors: The Bosses Revolt, a tremendous amount has transpired for the ‘End the Lockdowns' movement nationally, and the previous article almost comes off a tad reductive. What was once a more covert (but core) relationship between disparate alt-right activists and the broader anti-lockdown movement has begun to be picked up by Canadian media at large. Even though direct relations between the two were being drawn as far back as last year, by Canadian Anti-Hate Network executive director Evan Balgord, as mentioned in this piece covering NDP leader Jagmeet’s Singh’s disavowal of the movement. 

As noted by Nora Loreto in the same article referenced earlier, “The problem is that this isn’t how disinformation spreads. Every time a journalist repeats lies about vaccines — even if the lies are followed by an expert saying that they are lies — they are platforming these voices. It’s a victory for the conspiracists. And worse, journalists have failed or refused to talk about what’s really driving these individuals. Until Canadians can see the direct line between conspiracy theories and white supremacy, it will continue to be difficult to understand why their popularity seems to be growing, especially among white Canadians who have enough distance from COVID-19 that they can easily deny it exists.”

While Rebel News’ Don Menzies and Ezra Levant attempt to bolster their careers with fundraising and advertising revenue, small communities across Ontario continue to shoulder the burden of their organizing efforts by serving host to these potential super spreader events. 

And although there is certainly a very large contingent of the broader anti-lockdown movement that includes disparate grifters, Canadian media makes the mistake of reporting the mass base of the movement as entirely under the spell of talented grifters. As Loreto notes, these are white Canadians who aren’t on the frontlines of the pandemic, who are able to maintain an arms-length distance from COVID-19 to the point where they can deny its existence even as the virus runs rampant through primarily marginalized communities across Canada. 

On the weekend in question, tickets were served to demonstrators. The following weekend, anti-lockdown movement leader Tyler Berry took to social media to encourage his followers to ignore the tickets, claiming that the courts will inevitably be over encumbered and throw them out: "The gentleman that was just over here asked what I was going to do with my ticket and what he was going to do with his ticket. I told him I was going to burn my ticket later on today... because I actually think it's garbage. They want me to Zoom chat on the 25th of June, so it's like... for what? for you to just say I'm guilty, because I'm not guilty. It makes no sense. You can't defend yourself over a Zoom. How does that even work?"

He also doesn’t appear to know how Zoom court sessions work, which to Berry, is ample enough evidence that he and the rest of the anti-lockdown movement will escape scot-free from their work with the anti-lockdown movement. 

Certainly though, elements of the Canadian State, be they in business associations or policing, certainly appear to be more or less sympathetic to the anti-lockdown movement. Just a couple weeks ago, local DBIA head Terry Guiel was quoted in MyKawartha, parroting the exact same logic of the anti-lockdown protests, stating that, “I’m certainly of this opinion, the continued lockdown has created more problems than the actual COVID, disproportionately to downtowns across Ontario.” 

This disparity in police response has been noted by many as other protests, be they against Israeli Apartheid, land defense efforts against destruction of forests out west, or demonstrations against the forced removal of individuals experiencing homelessness in Toronto. In many cases, protesters are brutalized by the very same police forces that only a week prior tolerated sizeable anti-lockdown demonstrations across the country even when they grew in size and militancy throughout the Winter and Spring. 

With calls for an increased police response to these anti-lockdown demonstrations (which would effectively mean to equalize the state's distribution of force), it’s worth keeping in mind as we discussed earlier, and as has been reported on by Arthur since our first article published on the Anti-Lockdown movement; that these activists share political lineage with the Canadian far-right, are are now practically inseparable. 

The disproportionate police response to left-wing organizing has been long documented by activists across the province.  Given the province’s own sordid history of disparate investigations into right-wing affiliation within some of the provinces largest police departments, namely in Toronto, including a tradition of recruiting far-right militia’s to bust union efforts, to the origins of policing in Canada as de facto bodyguards for European enterprise on stolen land in what would be become Canada through enforcing violent land grabs on behalf of settler industry; policing in Canada is an institution intrinsically tied to white supremacy. 

Although the often messy ‘Anti-Lockdown’ movement may seem fringe, for many workers deemed essential across the country, the anti-lockdown ideology espoused by these activists is already reality. The core of what the Canadian anti-lockdown movement is suggesting is to place the profitability of private enterprise for bosses and owners above the health and safety of workers.

 In this, Canadian capitalists and their mass media have been tremendously successful at convincing great swathes of mostly working professionals that if only businesses could reopen, get workers back into their offices and studios, rehire, etc, the trickle down effect will alleviate the financial burden of the pandemic on the great majority of people in Canada. 

Perhaps ‘forgetting’ that this ‘alleviation’ can only exist as long as these workers are not sick with COVID-19. To which even the most progressive sectors of the capitalist political parties have only been able to answer with increased calls for paid sick days (another indication of this shifting Overton window which at one point saw the Liberal party of Canada advocating for paying people to stay at home at the beginning of the pandemic). 

Many of these movement leaders were not trained by the anti-lockdown movement into becoming professional organizers, but rather attached themselves to the movement after years, even decades, of movement-hopping amongst right-wing organizations. 

When this is ‘all over’, (a presumptuous and eurocentric remark given that most of the world is still in the midst of this deadly pandemic with no ‘over’ in the near future), many of these organizers will jump, with updated mailing lists and Signal chats, funds, public visibility, and clout, to a new venture. 

The Wakefield tradition of anti-vaccination ideology cannot exist without an individualism that limits one's purview to their own private self-interest and away from community responsibility. Just like Wakefield’s study couldn’t exist in anything other than a deeply ableist society, anti-vaccine ideology wouldn’t flourish the way it is without a politic that glorifies individual self-interest and the violent maintenance of private property. 

The lessons of the last decade; those being the lessons of the militant-left response to far-right organizing that simultaneously deplatform the far-right and empower communities to come together in resistance, enable a path forward for dealing with the rise of this violently anti-people ideology in the form of the Anti-Lockdown movement. This can include a diversity of approaches that include strategies for tackling a very complex vaccine hesitancy, but also room to incorporate the lessons of deplatforming that have been successful at curbing the spread of right-wing ideology in communities across the US and Canada. As vaccination numbers increase, communities will be progressively empowered to gather once more, and it may very well be the case that the anti-lockdown activists have floated for the better part of a year on the fact that we, as a greater community, all care enough about each other enough to stay home and not confront them.

Arthur News School of Fish
Arthur News School of Fish

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